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Published on May 09, 2019

close up of a therapist dry needling

Dry Needling: Targeted Relief for Pain

Walking and hiking had always been a simple joy for Cindy Heiberger. That is, until she began to experience pain in her feet.

“I had such extreme pain in my heels and the bottom of my feet, I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I tried stretches, exercises and steroid injections. I spent hundreds of dollars on new shoes, arch supports and heel pads. Nothing seemed to help,” Heiberger said. “I dealt with it for three years. I didn’t know what was wrong or what to do about it. It just hurt.”

Upon the suggestion to try physical therapy, Heiberger began seeing Jason Tjeerdsma, DPT, Physical Therapist with Avera Therapy.

“We analyzed her body to figure out the biomechanical issue she was dealing with, and how to treat it appropriately,” Tjeerdsma said. Heiberger’s pain was due to plantar fasciitis – a medical term for inflammation of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes.

Yet the source of her problem wasn’t actually her feet – it was her calves. Tjeerdsma first recommended a set of stretches and exercises – different than what Heiberger had found on the Internet.

And, he had another new tool in his toolbox that he wanted to try: dry needling.

In March of 2018, legislation passed in South Dakota allowing physical therapists to practice functional dry needling, a therapy to manage musculoskeletal problems. Tjeerdsma had been trained in the technique and was among physical therapists to advocate for this legislation. When the law became effective in August, Heiberger was one of the first patients in the state to receive this treatment.

Dry needling is an approved physical therapy practice in numerous other states including Iowa and Nebraska; check with your local physical therapist to see if it’s available in your area.

Dry needling uses thin, dry filament needles to target treatment to muscle, tendon and ligaments. “With this treatment, we are targeting a specific structure to restore overall function. It’s an evidence-based technique, proven to improve pain, function and range of motion,” Tjeerdsma said.

Whether in the neck, back or extremities, therapists use dry needling to target trigger points, hyper-irritable spots, taut bands of skeletal muscle and fascia, or painful spots that produce pain, tenderness or motor dysfunction.

After three sessions, Heiberger knew she was getting better. “It sped up the whole process. It put me over the top,” she said of dry needling.

Tjeerdsma said the needles are similar to acupuncture, but the process and the philosophy are quite different. “Acupuncture is traditional Chinese medicine in which needles are placed at points along meridian flow to rebalance the flow of energy,” he explained. “With dry needling, we focus on the specific tissue with our placement of the needles.”

When Tjeerdsma is placing the needles, he is trained to find those “knots” or tight spots within tissues. Placement of the needle then releases the tension right at that point.

Heiberger said that dry needling is not painful, but there is an intense sensation. “I don’t know how to describe it and I’m sure it’s totally different for everyone, but it’s not painful.”

A session might be as short as two minutes or as long as 20 minutes. As an emerging treatment, it is not yet covered by all insurance companies. However, Heiberger said the cost was surprisingly affordable.

In light of today’s opioid crisis, dry needling can provide another alternative to pain pills. “More and more, health care providers continue to find methods to treat pain that can omit pills and surgery,” said Tjeerdsma. “Dry needling offers a drug-free approach to pain relief.”

“It’s a tool for the tool box. It’s one of the tactics we use, along with things such as manual therapy, joint mobilization, heat or ice, prescribed stretching and exercises, and more,” Tjeerdsma said.

Learn more at Avera.org/therapy.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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