Dry Needling For Wicked Pain Relief

I confess, I am a dry needler. I have been a physical therapist for 21 years and took my first dry needling course in 2009. I have based most of my work, since about 2012, on dry needling theories and practice. In brief, dry needling is a treatment modality, that uses fine needles to decrease pain and promote healing, implemented mainly by physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and some others in medical or healing professions. That's all I will say, at this point, because the technique has been subject to 15-20 years of legal disputes between professions, mainly physical therapists and acupuncturists.

Anyway, about a month ago, I developed wicked, insidious onset of neck pain. I woke up on a Sunday morning with a nagging 'I slept wrong' feeling which proceeded to worsen throughout the day. My neck stopped turning and muscles spasms began to jolt me unlike any pain I had ever experienced. I began holding my head on with my hands. I could not go from sitting to standing without holding my head. I could not get into or out of bed without holding my head. I could not roll over in bed without crying. I could not brush my teeth, touch my face, or put on face lotion without sending shock waves through my neck. I could not smile or laugh. I could not shower, wash my hair, or wrap up my head in a towel without setting off severe muscle spasms. By Tuesday, with symptoms not improving and possibly worsening, I knew I could not help myself and needed to find a dry needler.

As a dry needling professional, I had a keen sense on where to go. I booked an appointment with Mike Kohm, PT, who had been practicing dry needling for as long as I have and I was hopeful, very hopeful that he could turn my symptoms around. My boyfriend drove me, while I held my head on in the passenger seat. I arrived at my appointment and I asked Mike to fix me, while I fought back tears of pain and harnessed my braveness. I told him that while I have practiced dry needling for the past ten years, I have been very infrequently on the receiving end. Usually, when I pulled a muscle or felt a radiating pain, if I could reach it, I would needle it myself. This time called for me to lay down, face down, masked up, and hold my sh*t together while he worked on me.

I made the right decision that day in going to see Mike Kohm, PT of Neuromuscular Strategies Physical Therapy in South Boulder, CO. After one treatment, I was able to turn my head side to side, within my available range of motion, much freer and with much less pain. The biggest result on that same day and the immediate days to follow was that I no longer had the muscle spasm pain that was stopping me in my tracks and bringing me to tears. On the car ride home, I did not have to hold my head through accelerations and decelerations. I could smile and laugh again because I knew I was going to get through this. Pain improved, range of motion improved, and my mood greatly improved over the next few days. I booked one more follow up appointment with him later that week and bought a good sleeping pillow from him.

Moral of the story. Sometimes pain comes in with no other explanation than, 'I'm middle aged and I slept wrong.' In my career as a physical therapist, I have heard these stories over and over again, and I have treated these things over and over again. Pain is scary, limiting, and life altering. Pain is an unpleasant sensation resulting from signals from your nervous system (nerves) telling your brain that something is wrong. When nerves get angry they send signals to the muscles they serve which may result in limited range of motion, muscle spasms, pain spots, or referred pain locations. These are the things we hunt down as physical therapists. We use our hands, we use our knowledge of anatomy, we use our knowledge of referred pain, and we use the treatment skills we have learned along the way to figure things out and help change symptoms for the better. If our skills don't match what is happening, ie pain from cancer or infection, we likely will not keep you under a treatment plan and will refer you elsewhere. But for the most common episodes of orthopedic pain (sciatica, plantar fasciitis, low back pain, hip pain, knee pain, headache, neck pain, shoulder pain, tendinitis, sprains, strains, impingement syndromes, bursitis, and overuse injuries) a physical therapist is a great place to start, especially if your state allows direct access to physical therapists. Most states allow at least a consultation with a physical therapist without a doctor's referral.

If you find yourself seeking this type of treatment, please note that due to the battle between professions regarding the use of needles, dry needling by physical therapists is not allowed in every state. Because dry needling has been very effective for many, we hope the battle will end, and this treatment will become readily available everywhere. But we are not that optimistic. One other thing to note is that dry needling is one technique to assist healing and not all physical therapists, chiropractors, or acupuncturists use it. It is best to find a practitioner you feel comfortable with and ask them how they can help you. There are many ways besides taking medicines like muscle relaxers or narcotics to provide pain relief and improve function.

Thanks to Mike, I was able to conquer my battle with severe neck pain and get back to living rather quickly. I highly recommend his skills, experience, humor, and ease with scheduling and treatment. If you are in the Boulder or Denver County regions he can be found at Neuromuscular Strategies. He has offices in Boulder and Denver.

About the author: Julie Schumann, PT is a practicing physical therapist in Colorado. Due to the pandemic she closed her office in Boulder County. She now works very part-time from her home and will figure out how that looks going forward when pandemic restrictions lift. She can be contacted at PinPoint Wellness.