When Michelle Hawley Buck, 49, could no longer tolerate the excruciating pain in her lower back and leg, her doctor referred her to a physical therapist trained in dry needling. “I have neuropathy in my left leg, and I get severe cramps,” Michelle says. “Dry needling is about the only thing that relieves the cramping, so I go every two weeks at physical therapy.”
Dry needling is a technique used by physical therapists for the treatment of pain and movement impairments. It can treat an enormous range of conditions such as muscular pain, carpal tunnel, plantar fasciitis, and more. In the majority of cases, dry needling patients only require two to three sessions for treatment, and the effects are long-lasting.
The technique uses a “dry” needle, which means free of medication or injection. It is similar to, but not the same as, an acupuncture needle. These small, thin needles are inserted into the muscle at the trigger points causing the pain. Whereas in acupuncture the needle is inserted and left stationary, in dry needling the needle is moved around to cause muscle contractions and spasms in order to improve muscle flexibility and functionality. In some cases, an electrical current (“E-stim”) is added to enhance the treatment. E-stim helps to stimulate blood flow and provide analgesic effects to help numb the pain, often providing a more long-term effect.
“I don’t feel the needles going through the skin,” Michelle says. “When it hits the muscle, it begins to burn, and then the twitching starts. It’s sort of like an induced charley horse. It’s uncomfortable, but once it releases it feels so much better! It’s kind of like a deep tissue massage, except it’s going directly into the muscle — deeper than a massage can get. It goes directly to the source of the problem.”
Chuck Wagner, 60, used dry needling to relieve his neck and upper back pain. “I was a pro motocross rider when I was younger. That’s constant pounding on the joints. Toward the end of my career I had a pretty bad crash that left me with constant [neck and upper back] pain,” Chuck says. “As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten worse to the point that sometimes I can hardly turn my head. Pain meds aren’t an option for me, so my doctor sent me to physical therapy.”
Usually dry needling is used in conjunction with or as part of a larger treatment plan. Chuck says, “After they diagnosed my issue, we started with the needles once a week. I have worked out in a gym six days a week for 30 years, so I was allowed to continue going, but my physical therapist altered my workouts to include a lot more stretching and fewer weight-bearing exercises. I also had a massage each week. I swear after the first needling session, the difference was pretty dramatic. It felt like a knot at the base of my neck had been straightened out. I only had to get needled two more times. It’s now been about three months and I’m still feeling good. I do still go for massages every couple of weeks, just to keep the muscles relaxed.”
Typically dry needling is an out-of-pocket expense not covered by insurance. In the Louisville area, treatments start at approximately $40 per session, in addition to the cost of physical therapy, which makes it very affordable for most. “I’d have paid just about anything. When you’re in constant pain, you’re willing to do anything to get relief,” Chuck says. “Thankfully, the cost really wasn’t that bad.”
By Bobbe Ann Crouch
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