Pins & Needles: An Ancient Remedy for an Age-Old Problem
Advil. CBD. Cannabis. Chiropractor. Hot oil massage. Hot stone massage. Swedish massage. Deep-tissue massage. Hot bath. Turkish bath. Reflexology. Athletic kinesiology tape. Titanium sports necklace. Vibrating muscle massage gun. Or the time-honored tumbler of a well-aged scotch.
For as long as golf has been played, golfers have sought salve for what ails the muscles, bones, tendons and tissues that are often stressed by the repetitive attack of terra firma.
After a recent round walking the amply elevated turf and turns of beautiful but burly MountainGate CC, the 18-hole stroll through the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, I took my throbbing flat feet to a treatment option steeped in both tradition and mystery: acupuncture.
Over the course of 35 years of golf, I’ve tried all manner of in-round and post-round treatments in an effort to provide my barking dogs some semblance of relief. But this recent attempt at pain alleviation would be my first foray into the traditional Chinese treatment, which dates back at least 3,000 years.
Serving as dutiful needle caddie was Santa Monica-based Grace Suh, owner of GS Wellness and a veteran of two decades in her trade. Suh is not merely one of the Southland’s leaders in the practice, but she’s on the short list of acupuncturists who specialize in the treatment of golf aches and pains. Presently, she counts golfers as a third of her clientele.
“Low back pain is the most common, but I also treat patients for golfer’s elbow, neck pain, rotator cuffs,” she said.
Herself an avid player since she picked up the game four years ago, Suh’s first golf-acupuncture client was, well, herself.
“When I started playing, I was hitting a lot of fat shots, a lot of heavy shots, especially when taking lessons and hitting on mats,” she said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t move my left shoulder; my rotator cuff was pretty messed up. So, that’s when I started working on myself ,and the injury improved in a short time.”
For the uninitiated, said work involves the learned placement of hair-thin needles at specified points, known as meridians, in the body. The practice further involves the placement of the needles at strategic distal points away from the area(s) of discomfort.
“When you increase blood flow and circulation, you naturally increase oxygen in the body, and all those anti-inflammatory cells in the blood get circulated,” explained Suh. “It helps the body heal itself and releases your natural pain-relieving chemicals.”
In contrast with massage or chiropractic work, which have a bigger and broader approach, acupuncture features a micro focus.
“With acupuncture, we have small, minute circulation going on in-between the tendons and muscle and bone, and that’s where acupuncture comes in beautifully,” said Suh. “We’re able to more acutely access those micro circulations.”
Many if not most acupuncture newbies come to Suh as a last resort.
“I’d say that 99 percent of people come to me after they’ve exhausted everything else, they come here as their last option,” she continued as I took my position on her treatment table. “And I get that; I mean, in California, acupuncture has only been licensed since the early ‘80s. So, for many people, this concept of treatment is still very new.”
The myth of acupuncture is that sticking needles into your flesh will hurt.
The truth is that you can barely feel it; the sensation is like getting a nibble from a baby mosquito. Some of the time, recipients can’t even tell when a needle is applied, and many longtime patrons even nap during the treatment.
Personally, during the portion of my own 50-minute session when my body was supinated, I opted to watch throughout, even as Suh carefully prefaced that needles in the balls of the feet count among the most sensitive of insertions.
Coupled with ointment and Moxibustion (mugwort herb) applications to the base of the needles — which create heat and promote further blood flow — Suh sports a full bag of techniques. Acupuncture, as she views the practice, is not a one-size-fits-all treatment. Rather, the styles of the practice (often attributed to nation of origin) and applicable result can and do vary for each person.
“It’s like cuisine,” Suh said of the various styles. “They all taste amazing, but the flavors are different.”
As I angled half-upward from my hips to watch her work, she placed a few needles in my feet and a few more in my calves. All told, there were about a dozen or so needles bobbing on my epidermis. But aside from the heat of the ointment and mugwort, I didn’t really feel anything.
What provided a bit more tangible pause was the added introduction to the technique of dry needling; without the ointment, the practice involves attaching little alligator clips, wire-stemmed from an electrotherapy unit, onto the needles. Small, subtle pulses of stimulation ensue (practitioners call it “e-stim”), and the sensation is both strange but somehow vibrant.
Having Suh present throughout also helped (many acupuncturists work multiple clients in multiple rooms at a time), and her guidance was soothing. This isn’t like the thousand massages I’ve had, with candlelit rooms and whale music, but rather a fascinating anatomical study of what my golf body — specifically the hardpan feet — will and won’t respond to.
Such response, it need be noted, likely won’t be felt in full on this day or the next. Most clients, Suh says, need three to five sessions before realizing the benefits in full.
And as a means of ongoing maintenance, some visitors also employ the between-session practice of sticker pins, which are teeny tiny 0.6 mm tack needles which can be applied most anywhere; certain golfers are known to wear the stickers on their ears, which serve as microsystems that impact all manner of body parts; the late Payne Stewart wore them in his ear to buoy focus and positive attitude while, more recently, Fred Couples was known to don the stickers (also in his ear) to aid his bad back.
“I hope that golfers would be able to use acupuncture as an additional option — perhaps as a first line of care before going into something more invasive, getting on long-term medications or using methods with the potential for severe side-effects,” Suh concluded.
For me, the bum feet won’t be finding curvature anytime soon, just as the post-round tumbler of some brown elixir will likely be a mainstay. But in both golf, and treating our golf bodies, the scorecard should always be open to exploring new things.