Getting to the Point: How Dry Needling Healed My Debilitating Pain
At the beginning of 2015, I had a clumsy moment that resulted in a serious concussion. While my concussion symptoms had finally faded by June, I struggled with residual headaches and severe neck pain from a cervical strain. I went to three physical therapists that did everything from massage to STEM to muscle energy work. I saw a masseuse and an acupuncturist until my bank account ran dry. Despite all these treatments, I still could not get through the day without debilitating headaches that stemmed from the injury at the base of my neck. As an avid runner and grad student with an entire semester to make up, this pain had no place in my summer plans.
Enter dry needling. As soon as I learned about this cutting edge modality and its potential to heal my neck and get me back to the active life I loved, I knew I needed to give it a try. I drove three hours to work with a physical therapist who does dry needling. It may seem extreme, but that car ride was well worth it.
What is dry needling?
“Dry needling is a skilled intervention that uses a thin filiform needle to penetrate the skin and stimulate underlying myofascial trigger points, muscular, and connective tissues for the management of neuromusculoskeletal pain and movement impairments.” [note]Source: APTA document Description of Dry Needling in Clinical Practice: An Educational Resource Paper. www.apta.org/StateIssues/DryNeedling/.[/note]
Essentially, dry needling is a treatment that directly triggers an injured area to loosen the muscles and increase blood flow to speed up the body’s natural healing process.
How does dry needling differ from acupuncture?
Dry needling and acupuncture are two completely different treatments.
“The practice of acupuncture by acupuncturists and the performance of dry needling by physical therapists differ in terms of historical, philosophical, indicative, and practical context. The performance of modern dry needling by physical therapists is based on western neuroanatomy and modern scientific study of the musculoskeletal and nervous system. Physical therapists who perform dry needling do not use traditional acupuncture theories or acupuncture terminology.” [note]Source: APTA document Description of Dry Needling in Clinical Practice: An Educational Resource Paper. www.apta.org/StateIssues/DryNeedling/.[/note]
Acupuncture is a 4,000-year-old practice anchored in Eastern medicine that’s noninvasive and less direct. Acupuncture addresses the energy surrounding an injury, while dry needling confronts the source of pain directly. For example, when I went to an acupuncturist for my neck pain, she put needles all over my body, with a particular focus on my toes. The physical therapist worked on my neck and the immediate musculature such as my shoulders and traps.
What to expect
Dry needling can be one part of a larger approach to healing your injury. This procedure is one tool in the physical therapist’s toolbox, but it can be used in tandem with other treatment modalities such as dermining your range of motion, stretching, and massage. In a 30-minute appointment, the therapist might spend ten minutes dry needling and the rest of the time using mobilization and manipulation techniques.
The degree of pain experienced during dry needling varies from person to person, but it is safe to assume that the procedure induces some level of discomfort. It feels like a bug bite as the needle is inserted, but then the sensation intensifies as the physical therapist manually creates a muscle spasm. It feels sort of like a powerful Charlie horse.
Directly after the procedure, the physical therapist should massage the area to increase blood flow and then instruct you on proper stretches. This step is KEY. In order to truly reap the benefits of the session, you must keep the treated muscles loose. You will feel sore- like you just worked out for the first time in a year- but just remember that you essentially have some internal bruising that your body is working to heal. Dry needling is most beneficial when done multiple times over the course of a few weeks. Don’t be surprised if your PT wants to set you up with a follow-up.
Two years after my initial dry needling appointment, I am 100% free of neck pain and headaches. I even went back last year when I got a nasty case of plantar fasciitis in both feet (after being unable to run for a year, I think I went a little too hard too soon). I had been resting and stretching obsessively for 3 months before getting dry needled for my PF and the results were unbelievable. Within two weeks I was able to walk and hike again and I began running after a month.
As with any new methodology, there is some controversy surrounding dry needling. I am sharing my story to help spread awareness of this treatment, but you should do some research and discuss dry needling with your own medical professional.
JOIN THE WELL COMMUNITY
Sign up to get the latest well insiders stories delivered to your inbox every week.