Beginning the road to recovery after an injury might be just a needle away, but not in the way you might think.

Dry needling, a physical therapy technique that involves the insertion of a needle into soft tissues with the aim of decreasing muscle tissue tension and improving musculoskeletal function, does not use medication or injection. It is not the same as acupuncture.

“The thing that is the same is that we are sticking a needle into a muscle,” said Ryan Geary, clinic director of the ATI Physical Therapy’s Patewood Clinic. “That’s probably where the similarities end. We are using the patient’s presentation and combining that with our evaluation and the practitioner’s experience.”

The needle used is solid and so small that several could fit inside a typical hollow needle used for injections.

“Dry needling has some good evidence that says for the most part we can make positive improvement in pain and function,” Geary said. “We’re finding areas in your body that have dysfunction or hyperirritability or pain.”

Dry needling can be used after some surgical procedures, such as knee replacement, or for muscle and other injuries.

“Often we use the word ‘trigger points’ – a local area of muscle irritability,” Geary said. “It can feel a little like a knot. Often that section of the muscle is engaged. It’s turned on. That diminishes a little bit of the circulation to that muscle.”

The needle insertion, in effect, can tell the muscle to turn off.

“That helps reset the environment,” Geary said. “Dry needling isn’t the only solution. The other piece is good movement habits.”

Those can be established through stretching and/or strengthening, but dry needling can be a tool used to help a patient meet their goals.

Geary noted that in South Carolina, patients can come to a physical therapist for 30 days without a prescription, as long as their insurance company is in agreement. After an evaluation, the physical therapist may need to send the patient to a physician. If therapy is to last longer than 30 days, a physician’s order will be required.

“Often, one of the best things we can do for pain management is to get someone moving again,” Geary said. “We’re using that to help drive a healthier lifestyle.”

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