Dry Needling: Powerful, Drug-Free Pain Relief for Athletes

Learn about dry needling and how it can help you if you're suffering from a serious or chronic soft tissue injury.

Athletes suffering from serious or chronic soft tissue injuries are often prescribed powerful anti-inflammatory drugs to combat pain and inflammation. Although these drugs can be effective, in some cases they can impact your long-term health by placing a greater demand on your liver and kidneys, which can accelerate aging and shorten your career.

Dry needling is quickly becoming a popular drug-free alternative for treating soft tissue inflammation. To find out more about it and how it can help athletes, we interviewed physical therapist Sue Falsone (PT, MS, SCS, ATC, CSCS, COMT), the owner of Structure & Function and an instructor of Systemic Dry Needling. Falsone is the former L.A. Dodgers' physical therapist and head athletic trainer and the current head of athletic training and sport performance for the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team.

Q: What is dry needling?

Dry Needling

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Falsone: Dry needling uses a fine filament needle to create tiny lesions in soft tissue. The body regenerates fresh tissue to replace the lesioned tissue in three to 10 days, without forming scar tissue.

With this treatment method, an anti-inflammatory immune reaction restores tissue and promotes self-healing. It all happens without the side effects often caused by anti-inflammatory drugs.

How is it different from acupuncture?

Falsone: They both use needles, so they may seem similar, if not identical. However, the theoretical foundations of the two treatment modalities are very different. Chinese acupuncture is based on Eastern medicine philosophy, which says that energy flows through meridians located throughout the body. Dry needling is based on Western medical science, anatomy and neurophysiology.

Is it painful?

Falsone: Most people don't feel anything when the needle is inserted. A brief pain response is usually noticed afterward. This can feel like a small electric shock or cramp, and it goes away very quickly.

How can it help athletes?

Falsone: I worked with a Major League Baseball pitcher who had surgery to repair a flexor tendon on his throwing elbow. When he first called me eight months after his surgery, he was still in pain and had very limited range of motion in his arm. With spring training getting close, he still wasn't able to throw without pain.

I performed dry needling on him twice. The first time, he got back about half of his range of motion. After the second treatment, his full range of motion was restored. More important, the change lasted after the treatment. After a few more treatments, he was pain-free, able to pitch during spring training and ready to start the season on time.

The method can be very effective in treating pain, improving biomechanical dysfunction and healing soft tissue injuries. Because it is done without drugs, we can cut down on the amount of medication an athlete takes. This spares the liver and kidneys and can improve long-term health. I currently use it in my work with the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team. Many MLB, NBA and NFL teams use it on their athletes.

A lot of people are skeptical at first. But once they see the benefits after one or two treatments, they become believers. Of course, like any treatment, it doesn't help everyone. We still have a lot of science to uncover and research to perform to determine what's happening and which injuries it will help.

Is it safe?

Falsone: If performed by a properly trained allied health care practitioner, it is very safe. These professionals spend years studying anatomy and are aware of the contraindications and precautions associated with the method.

Who should athletes go to if they want to try it?

Falsone: Physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, some medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy can all be trained in the method.

Each state's practice act varies, so you  need to check which allied health care practitioners in your area offer it and are allowed to perform it.

On Target Publications provides resources to help fitness professionals and serious athletes get better results from their training programs. On Target Publication's books and DVDs cover the latest in functional training, athletic training and corrective exercise. You can find Sue Falsone's latest DVD, The Shoulder, which covers the four most common shoulder dysfunctions found in overhead athletes and how to correct them, at the On Target Publications website, otpbooks.com

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock