Physical therapy patient receiving dry needling therapy

Dry needling provides a solution for pain and stiffness

Interested in dry needling?

> Talk to your primary care provider

The crack in the sidewalk was pretty small.

“But I caught it,” Terry Sullivan said.

And down he went. At first, he was simply embarrassed. Then came the pain in his neck, which quickly grew stiff.

“The stiffness wouldn’t go away,” Terry said. “I started to think, ‘Boy, is this what old age is about?’”

Terry is 67 years old, a lifelong resident of Livingston County in Central Illinois. He spent 30 years with the county sheriff’s department, first as a deputy, then as a sergeant. He retired 16 years ago and bought into a real estate business, which he continues to operate. He tries to work out three or four days a week.

But the pain and stiffness in his neck threatened to disrupt everything.

Addressing the trigger point for pain

Terry finally went to see his doctor, who referred him to the physical therapy department at OSF HealthCare Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center in Pontiac, the county seat.

Sometimes, a specific stretching regimen or “soft-tissue mobilization” – a type of massage therapy – can provide relief. But some cases require more. For Terry, physical therapist Angela Ehrgott suggested dry needling therapy.

Angela is one of four clinicians at OSF Saint James, and one of 70 throughout the OSF HealthCare Ministry, certified to perform dry needling.

The technique is called “dry” needling because no medication is injected. The therapist inserts an ultrathin needle (no more than 0.3 millimeters thick) into the affected area.

“What I do is locate the specific muscle that seems to be the issue,” Angela said. “I find the knot, or what we call the trigger point for the pain, and I use the needle to get into that knot. I’m using the end of the needle to get to where my fingers can’t with other soft-tissue mobilization techniques.”

The needle, which can be up to six centimeters long (just over two inches), usually is inserted for only a minute or two. The needle relaxes muscle fibers, decreases muscle spasm and releases tension.

Relief from pain, discomfort

“Once you get that spot loosened up with the needle, the entire muscle can stretch a little better,” Angela said. Specific stretching and strengthening exercises take the treatment from there.

Terry underwent weekly dry needling treatments for about six weeks. He began to see improvement almost immediately, and by the time treatments finished, he had regained full range of motion and was pain free.

“It definitely gave me relief. I have no discomfort whatsoever,” Terry said. “I know it might not be right for everybody, but if you have pain like that, trust your therapist. If other treatments aren’t working, dry needling is something you should consider.”

‘I didn’t feel the prick at all’

Some people are reluctant to try dry needling because of a fear of needles or pain.

“They said I’d probably feel a little prick,” Terry said. “But most of the time, I didn’t feel the prick at all.”

Angela said the use of dry needling depends on the patient. If you really don’t like needles, she’ll pursue a different course of therapy.

In addition, dry needling would not be performed on a person taking blood-thinners unless the primary physician approved. Dry needling is not used on people who have an active infection, and needles are never used over sensitive areas like the lungs, front of the neck or directly over nerves or arteries that might be compromised.

But dry needling is an effective treatment for many muscle and joint issues.

“We can do it everywhere from your neck to your feet: head, back of head, face, jaw, jaw muscles, hands, feet,” Angela said. “We do a lot of needling on patients with plantar fasciitis. We treat calves and hamstrings, too.”

Talk with your doctor about a referral to OSF Rehabilitation.

Safe and trusted care

After closing non-essential services to focus our efforts and resources on responding to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, OSF HealthCare reopened services with increased measures to keep you safe from infection.

All OSF HealthCare hospitals, urgent care centers and medical offices are following strict guidelines provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for cleaning and disinfecting. Patients, essential visitors and Mission Partners are expected to wear masks, for the comfort and safety of everyone. But our hospitals, emergency departments and practices also have comprehensive strategies for keeping patients safe that go beyond what the CDC asks of us.

Last Updated: July 6, 2020

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: Patient Stories, Physical Therapy