Nov 20, 2017
To the Point
Maria Hutsick

Athletic trainers in professional sports have been using dry needling for a while. Now, colleges and therapy clinics are using it, as well.

So what is dry needling? It is a highly effective form of sports medicine therapy for treatment of a multitude of musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions. It is not appropriate for all conditions but is used at the discretion of an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or chiropractor.

Dry needling is not acupuncture (traditional Chinese medicine) — it is based on neuroanatomy and modern scientific study of the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems. It works by inserting a very fine filament needle through the skin and into deeper tissues that are considered trigger points to pain. This causes a micro-lesion within the pathological tissue, which breaks up shortened tissues, inhibits a reflex arc from the nervous system to the tissue, normalizes inflammatory response, and centrally mediates pain.

So far, I have used dry needling on plantar fasciitis, sprained ankles, sciatica, medial elbow pain, Achilles tendon issues, shin splints, and snapping hip. Everyone I’ve treated has resolved their soft-tissue issues.

Through the years, I have been very intrigued by the use of dry needling but thought I shouldn’t take the course because I would not be able to use it in my setting (high school). However, I had heard and seen so many good results, I decided to learn how to do it.

Over the summer, I took Dr. Ma’s Integrative Dry Needling (IDN) course. The IDN organization teaches two levels of courses — the intro and the advanced. I have only taken the intro and will take the advanced after using dry needling for eight to 12 months. The course required a short written test and a case study with a clinical requirement to become certified.

When taking the course, I thought I would be the only athletic trainer there. But I was surprised to see that athletic trainers made up the majority of the class. There were also a few physical therapists and an NBA athletic trainer.

Although I was afraid it would be difficult to use dry needling at my school since the athletes are mostly minors, I have had great results. I made up a permission slip that the athlete and his or her parents sign in order for me to apply the technique. I also provide a two-page explanation of what dry needling is, how it works, and the science behind it. This has worked well so far.

Surprisingly, I have used dry needling more on the teachers at my school than the athletes. I treated one teacher, and she went to lunch and told her circle of friends about it. Next thing I knew, I had a line out the door of others who wanted to try it.

So far, I have used dry needling on plantar fasciitis, sprained ankles, sciatica, medial elbow pain, Achilles tendon issues, shin splints, and snapping hip. Everyone I’ve treated has resolved their soft-tissue issues.

If you are interested in pursuing dry needling certification, there are a few things to keep in mind. Dry needling is not permitted in all states, so check the laws of your state prior to enrolling in a class. For example, I know it is illegal to perform dry needling in New Jersey.

Also, the classes for dry needling are expensive, which can deter people from taking them. Fortunately, my lacrosse association paid for my class, but I have been at my school for a long time, and the parents are very in tune with me and my ability to treat their children. If you are new at your high school, I would become established first before taking a dry needling course.

Finally, I strongly advise against trying to purchase the needles and using this method without the appropriate certification. It is necessary to learn how to properly apply the dry needling, as you can puncture a lung or injury a kidney with incorrect technique. However, if you take a course and follow the protocol, the risk is very low.

Even though we don’t charge a fee for service, dry needling is a great tool for athletic trainers to have in their repertoire of treatments. If the law in your state allows you to practice it and you are able to afford the class, it’s a worthwhile technique to learn.

Image by Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter

Maria Hutsick, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, is Head Athletic Trainer at Medfield (Mass.) High School and former Director of Sports Medicine at Boston University. She is a past president of the College Athletic Trainers' Society and was honored with an NATA Athletic Trainer Service Award in 2010. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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