What is Dry Needling & How Does it Address Muscle Pain?

by Milinda Atallian

Imagine that you are experiencing discomfort somewhere in your body. Imagine that it is somewhat relentless, and it’s prohibiting you from doing what you want to do to keep your body moving in the way that you are accustomed to. Imagine that the discomfort is teetering on the verge of being painful, and that it’s trickling into other areas of your body. And NOW, imagine that someone has the nerve to suggest that you go and get “needled” to make it feel better.

That is precisely what happened to me in early November when I was struggling with a hip injury. The pain was radiating into my back, down my hamstring, into my quad – I was limping because of it. It was not fun.

I had tried all the “things”: rest, ice, massage, foam roller, Theragun, cold plunge. From icy hot salves to heating pads and patches. Stretching and strengthening exercises were added to my daily schedule that focused specifically on my hip, back, and leg.

While it was mentally helpful to know that I was trying to make myself feel better, I just wasn’t able to get the pain to dissipate. Finally I took the “dry needle advice”, and asked Chris Vodzak at Elite PT right here in the HAC to help me. Simply put, it worked. Within an hour or so after my first appointment, my limp was gone and I was out of pain.

So, what exactly is dry needling? I asked Chris a few questions to help explain the benefits of this amazing treatment, and here is what he said:

What is the purpose of dry needling?

“The purpose of dry needling is to target intermuscular trigger points (knots or tight spots) in a particular muscle group.”

What should one expect during a dry needling appointment?

“A fine filiform needle is inserted into the muscle to produce a localized twitch response that causes that “knot” to go away or “release”. Trigger points form in muscles for a number of reasons including excessive demands on that muscle due to overuse, protective spasm to prevent damage to the nerve/joint that muscle surrounds, or general disuse/immobilization etc..

Muscles will form trigger points due to short term benefit as they provide protection to muscle/joint so that further damage is not done to that area. However, in the long term, they can cause stiffness, tightness, pain, and prohibit that muscle from getting stronger.”

How is dry needling effective?

“Dry needling is effective in getting deep into the muscle, releasing that trigger point which reduces tightness in the short term and allows that individual to better activate that muscle. This allows for faster return of strength and normal function of that muscle.”

What is the difference between dry needling and acupuncture?

“Dry needling and acupuncture utilize the same fine filiform needle and have the same goal of pain relief – but the technique is very different. Acupuncture is based upon eastern medicine where needles are inserted into strategic points to alleviate pain working through the nervous system. These needles are typically only inserted a few millimeters into the skin and not necessarily done directly into the site that is causing the symptoms.

With dry needling, the needle is inserted as deep as necessary to reach the target muscle. It is typically done in the muscle that is painful for a muscle that attaches to a painful joint. The goal is to achieve less muscle stiffness, improve muscle activation, and help to progress strength and stability.”

What types of injuries/ailments would best benefit from dry needling?

“Any injury or ailment that has a muscular component would benefit from dry needling. Any injury that has not responded well to typical physical therapy interventions, or has plateaued in progress may benefit from dry needling.

It is important to note that we utilize dry needling as another piece of a global treatment plan. It works best for long term gains if coupled with exercises to stretch and strengthen that muscle group. Otherwise the dry needling alone will only have short term impacts.

We would not use it on any surgical site for at least 12-16 weeks after surgery. We would also take caution for anyone who is taking blood thinners or is immunocompromised.”

Chris and the staff are well-versed and always happy to talk to anyone about dry needling as part of a greater picture towards relief and recovery. While I was hesitant at first, I can personally say that dry needling helped me tremendously as I was moving through a hip stress fracture injury. Initially, he talked me through the process and after my first treatment, I felt relief – not only in the area that was bothering me, but in the areas where residual pain was present.

Does it hurt?

That’s a tricky one to answer and two-fold. The bigger part of the answer is simply – no. It does not hurt. The sensation is stranger than pain. Once the “release of the muscle” happens and the “twitch response” occurs, the strange sensation goes away. It does not feel like a flu shot or a tattoo, but it is a needle after all, so you can feel the stick but not in a painful way.

After the first treatment, I felt a soreness in the muscle, but within a short period of time, the pain that I was having around my injured area felt so much better. I was no longer limping due to pain in my back and my quadricep felt better. Everything felt better.

Chris asked that I “move” after the procedure, so I got on the bike for a bit and did some abductor walks with a band to help with the blood flow to the areas that had been treated.

I went back to see Chris twice more and continued to garner relief from each treatment. My only regret is that I had not tried it sooner.

Since my hip injury, I have been telling as many people as possible about the benefits of dry needling, and how it has helped me. It goes without saying that every person and case is different. Every scenario and situation that deals with physical ailments or injuries may not always benefit from dry needling.

With that said, if you happen to be taxed with “knots or tight spots” – If you feel as if you are having residual pain or discomfort as a result of an injury, consider making an appointment at Elite PT to discuss dry needling as an option for you.

While you may not leave with the nice sheen of a new tattoo – let the needles do their thing – you will not regret it.

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