Dry needling can be powerful tool for physical therapists
Steamboat Springs — Whether a patient is feeling the effects of a physically active lifestyle or the results of too much time at an office desk, Steamboat Springs physical therapist Ericka Lucas often relies on dry needling as an important tool for relieving pain.
Sharing a common instrument with acupuncture — the microfilament needle — dry needling, often called “trigger point dry needling,” is a separate process used exclusively by certified physical therapists as a supplement to other physical therapy treatment.
“It’s a way to get a little bit deeper into those muscles,” said Lucas, who works at Forever Fit. “It’s about five times more effective than my hands alone.”
The process involves inserting small, microfilament needles into specific taught bands of dysfunctional muscle, also known as trigger points or knots, Lucas said.
The technique alters aspects of the way pain is perceived by the brain, potentially providing relief for people who suffer from chronic pain and who have brains that may be overloaded with pain stimuli, which can lead to a decrease in a person’s threshold for pain, Lucas said.
“Dry needling is then followed by corrective exercises to retrain a patient’s body with correct movement patterns to eliminate and prevent movement dysfunction,” Lucas said.
While physical therapists, including Lucas, assert dry needling differs from acupuncture, some in the national acupuncture community have spoken out against the physical therapy practice, insisting physical therapists should have to undertake acupuncture training before performing the technique.
“There is absolutely no similarity as far as what is happening and the mechanism of what we’re doing,” said Nicole Rabanal, a physical therapist at Kinetic Energy physical therapy clinic in Steamboat. “The only similarity is the tool, which is a solid filament tool that doesn’t hold any medicine.”
Rabanal, who has been a physical therapist for about 22 years and certified in dry needling since 2006 — said the technique has accelerated the progress her patients are able to make.
“It’s just an incredibly effective technique,” said Rabanal, who learned about dry needling after completing continuing education with physical therapists from Australia and Canada, areas where the technique was approved as part of the scope of practice for physical therapists years earlier than many states in the U.S., including Colorado.
Both Rabanal and Lucas said they use dry needling daily on active trigger points, or knots, in a person’s muscles, though the frequency of use depends on which patients they see.
The practice isn’t recommended for some, including those in the first trimester pregnancy, post-operative patients or those with cancer.
Rabanal said she encounters patients who are unsure about using needles in their treatment, but she believes the method is very beneficial to patient progress.
“It’s definitely a technique that some people are a little leery of, because in our Western culture, we sort of fear needles,” Rabanal said. “But if it’s a muscle-based issue, it’s incredible effective.”
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