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Minimally Invasive Dry Needling Addresses Acute, Chronic Pain

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Procedure involves inserting very fine needles to alleviate muscle tightness and pain

A pair of UnityPoint Health physical therapists are delivering an innovative therapy to address muscular pain resulting from a variety of conditions. The therapy, called dry needling, involves the insertion of very fine needles into target locations of the body – called trigger points – to stimulate muscles and ease pain.

The treatment is offered by Dr. Jeremy Hoppe, PT, DPT, and Dr. Kristina Pauley, PT, DPT of UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Outpatient Rehab.

The most common condition treated with the therapy is myofascial pain. The condition affects the muscles and fascia, which is the thin, white connective tissue that is wrapped around every muscle.

“Dry needling allows us to specifically target the areas that are radiating pain,” Hoppe says. “This pain is typically chronic and varies significantly from muscle pain that comes from routine causes like working out too hard or an injury like a sprain or strain.”

The specific areas treated are called trigger points. The needles are inserted into these trigger points with the aim of loosening muscles that have knotted or contracted.

“These tight spots can be very painful when touched and can even cause pain to radiate to other areas if they are very aggravated. Painful trigger points can also cause muscle dysfunction so I can also use electrical stimulation with the muscles I am needling to promote neuromuscular re-education and re-train that muscle to do its job,” Pauley says. The electrical stimulation can also help decrease soreness that the treatment may cause.  It is most common to use dry needling to address issues in the shoulders, neck, back, hips, knees, and the heels. “In some cases, dry needling alone will alleviate this tightness and reduce the pain. In others, it can provide enough relief that patients can participate more fully in more traditional physical therapy to address their condition.”

Dry needling is categorized as minimally invasive because in most treatments the needles are not inserted very deeply and are only remain in the muscle for a short period of time.

“Those who are experiencing myofascial pain that has not responded to traditional therapy could really benefit from this approach,” Hoppe says. Both he and Pauley have specialized training in dry needling. “This is a safe procedure and we have seen a number of patients who have been able to reduce their pain medications and improve their mobility after just a few appointments.”

The procedure is safe but not recommended for those with a phobia of needles. Those who take blood thinners or are immunocompromised should also discuss the benefits and risk with their primary care provider before they have dry needling done.

Many compare dry needling to acupuncture. While the two are similar, there are some significant differences.

“The most obvious difference is that with dry needling we are inserting needles in the specific area that is causing discomfort,” Pauley says. “With acupuncture, the needles are inserted in various points in the body believed to help promote better energy flow. Our primary goal is to target pain in concert with other therapies that address acute or chronic issues. Acupuncture is typically a standalone therapy that is more focused on cultivating a sense of calm and overall wellness.”

Dry needling has been around for nearly a century but found mainstream acceptance in the 1980s. The procedure is performed in the Outpatient Rehab department on the St. Luke’s campus.

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