The Gazette: Dry Needling Becomes Popular Method for Treating Pain

JANESVILLE, WI — Dry needling is not acupuncture.

Many patients approach dry needling with the misconception that the two are the same, said Jenny Nettesheim, physical therapist at Mercyhealth Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Janesville.

Nettesheim wants to change that.

Dry needling is a long-term, physical therapy treatment used for patients with muscle-based pain, Nettesheim said. The procedure in recent years has grown increasingly popular for pain management.

Like acupuncture, dry needling requires the use of thin filiform needles. That’s where the commonalities end, Nettesheim said.

Physical therapists use about three needles per procedure, Nettesheim said. Larger muscles, such as the ones in the thigh, may need more.

“Acupuncturists tend to use more Eastern-based medicine with meridians in the body, where Western-based medicine (uses) the neuromuscular system for treating more muscle-based pain,” Nettesheim said.

When performing the procedure, physical therapists poke and twist needles into trigger points in the muscles, releasing built up tension, Nettesheim said. Those trigger points may contribute to pain, limited motion or limited function in the muscles.

The procedure typically lasts less than 10 minutes. On average, patients need six to eight sessions for pain to become manageable or relieved entirely, Nettesheim said.

For some patients, such as Betsy Johnson of Milton, pain relief occurs immediately.

“(Relief) was instant,” Johnson said. “As she puts the needle in, you feel a bit of a pinch, the muscle twitches and then it just kind of lets go and the stress lets go with that.”

Johnson has experienced chronic pain in her neck and shoulders for more than 15 years, she said. Her pain comes from long hours working at a desk and holding stress in her upper body.

To combat her pain, Johnson has tried yoga, stretching, exercises, chiropractic sessions and other “holistic” approaches with little to no results.

But after three dry needling sessions with Nettesheim, Johnson said her pain has reduced significantly.

“I’ve had very good results,” Johnson said. “I think my stress and my tension in my upper body was so ingrained, it’s just been so chronic for so long, I think it’s going to be awhile for the muscles to be OK.”

Some people with pain might not be suited for the treatment, Nettesheim said. People with fear of needles or whose pain does not originate in their muscles will want to explore other treatment options.

Relief can come sooner or later depending on the patient, Nettesheim said. Reactions will differ for each person, but overall long-term results seem positive.

Few patients report no relief, Nettesheim said. She believes this treatment helps patients with muscle pain better than anything else.

For some, dry needling can be an alternative to pain medication, Nettesheim said.

It’s “great” to get people away from using narcotics and pain medication when possible, Nettesheim said. That possibility will depend on the patient’s pain and use of narcotics in the past.

“The sooner you get your pain addressed, the more likely we can try to solve the issue first,” Nettesheim said. “But even people who have chronic pain for a long time, we can at least get them to a place where their pain is more manageable, that they have a better quality of life and they may have to rely on (medication) less.”

Patients can receive dry needling therapy for an injury that happened days earlier or pain that has been ongoing for years, Nettesheim said. As long as the pain is muscle-based, dry needling can be used.

People who work in jobs with a lot of repetitive motions, lifting, bending or pushing often seek the procedure, Nettesheim said. It may also be used for sports-related pain or injury.

Many patients seek treatment with a referral from another doctor or physical therapy, Nettesheim said. Those who want treatment without a referral can do so, but it is less likely that insurance will cover the cost.

Dry needling has existed for decades but has become popular in the last year or so, Nettesheim said. She hopes the procedure will help people with pain get back to normal lives faster than before.

“I think it’s really exciting in our field, and it’s going to be a great technique to add to our toolbox of other different things to try and help patients as much as we can,” Nettesheim said.

Story originally published in The Gazette on September 28, 2017.

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