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Dry Needling: A Treatment Option for Muscle Pain

woman with back pain

Most people have experienced muscle spasms and know the pain can bring activity to an abrupt halt if you move in the wrong direction. Muscle spasms, or the sudden, involuntary contraction of one or more muscles, can occur for several reasons; perhaps it occurred after you helped a friend move their furniture, or after you picked up heavy weights at the gym, or perhaps when you quickly turned your head to merge into the right traffic lane. Whatever the cause, spasms are unforgettable, and most times you must limit your range of motion to prevent future discomfort. Muscle spasms can last for a few days, and even up to a few months; it depends on how irritated the muscles are and your previous muscle condition.

The best way to address a muscle spasm is to stretch the muscle as much as you can tolerate. An over-the-counter pain reliever, such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, NSAID, may be advised if medically appropriate.  For some patients I discuss starting a muscle relaxer to help them overcome the acute pain, but a long-term plan to address the muscle spasms is always a part of the discussion.

The initial problem can be rectified, but from a physician’s standpoint, my concern is why the spasm occurred in the first place; it could be because of arthritis, poor posturing and body mechanics, or fatigued muscles. Regardless of the circumstances, physical therapy is a great place to start.  A physical therapist can work on improving the muscle tightness with prescribed exercises to specifically address the condition. Treatment options may also include deep heat, ultrasound, and manipulation with traction. A treatment known as dry needling may be recommended to help physically eliminate the spasms.

What is Dry Needling?

Dry needling, also known as myofascial trigger point dry needling, is the process by which a highly trained and skilled therapist certified in the dry needling procedure uses a small needle to manually address the muscle spasm. The goal is to break up that spasm and then stretch the muscle to help accelerate the healing process. Filiform needles are fine, short, stainless steel needles that do not inject fluid into the body, thus the reference to “dry” needling. The procedure is like acupuncture in terms of level of discomfort and can provide noticeable improvement. Several treatment sessions may be required for sustained relief, but in certain circumstances, it can be a great alternative to more invasive treatments. Currently, the procedure is not covered by most health insurance plans but instead billed as a direct out-of-pocket expense.

If you have questions about dry needling, and its appropriateness for your muscle pain, contact OrthoAtlanta for a consultation.

This article, authored by OrthoAtlanta physiatrist, Yolanda Scott, MD, appears in Chapel Hill News and Views, January, 2020.  

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