When chronic severe headaches virtually incapacitated me in the Fall of 2010, I went to a neurologist. After a variety of diagnostic tests (including an MRI) showed nothing but health, he blamed my headaches on stress and chronic, severe muscle spasms/tension.
Originally prescribed anti-migraine medicines, muscle relaxants, and neck stretches, I saw slight improvement. After about three weeks, the headache that had been a daily constant pain was gone.
However, the severe neck muscle spasms that resulted after any decent muscular exertion (something as simple as picking up a 20 lb box) were still crippling me. I had been working out with a physical trainer for months, and had to stop. If I pushed myself too much physically, the following day I would be virtually crippled with neck spasms and another migraine. The medicines treated the problem when it appeared, but I could not figure out how to prevent it other than doing as little physical activity as possible.
I then was recommended to a massage therapist who found I was one gigantic muscle knot. Several hour-long deep tissue massages located the most painful areas in my neck and shoulders and helped them to loosen up for a few days to a week at a time. However, as the summer of 2011 was ending, I was desperate to find something to actually get to the root of my recurrent neck pain. Working out was still out of the question, as I was still having the post-exertion headaches.
Finally, my physician referred me to a physical therapist. Originally, this was to work on my right shoulder which had become so weak due to disuse that it was frequently making popping noises now and was occasionally locking itself in place for a short time. However, due to my chronic history of neck pain/headaches, the physical therapist was going to work on these problems as well.
After listening to my history and examining me, the physical therapist had me start on a variety of stretching and toning exercises for my shoulder/neck. The next thing she suggested to me was the technique of dry needling. I had never heard of this before, but apparently she claimed she had found success with this technique in treating chronic pain due to muscle spasms/old muscular injury.
The technique of dry needling involves inserting long filament needles deep into the trigger points of affected muscles. A trigger point is another term for what most people would consider a knot in the muscle. It’s a highly sensitive area that is painful with palpation or massage.
When the needle is inserted into a trigger point, often there is a reflexive muscle twitch that takes place. It is thought that this indicates that the trigger point was indeed targeted correctly. The needle itself is supposed to trigger in that muscle knot the release of various substances (such as endogenous opiods that block pain) that help the area to heal.
Although I couldn’t find much in the way of research studies to prove that dry needling works, I decided to go with my physical therapist’s recommendations. I was beyond tired of living with the pain that I had, and the idea of dry needling seemed promising.
As the patient, if you’re squeamish of needles, this technique might not work for you. It’s not at all a painless process; in fact, my experience is that the worse your problem is, the more painful it might be.
The physical therapist treated both sides of my neck and upper back the first two dry needling sessions. The third one spread the needles into the deltoid muscle area (behind my shoulder). Where I was always most sensitive before , I did feel the needles when they were inserted. If the area wasn’t causing any problems, I couldn’t feel the needle at all.
Once the trigger points were identified (the therapist said she could feel them), I was warned that these areas would be painful. Aside from the pain, I would also feel my muscle jump at times when the needle was manipulated in the trigger point. I indeed did feel all those things. The pain itself was anything from a dull, deep pain (like how your arm feels after a shot), to a sharp grabbing pain when the trigger point twitched strongly.
The sessions lasted 10-15 minutes, and typically I was pretty sore after the sessions were over. I felt sluggish and very sore in the areas that were most painful during the needling. This subsided after two to three hours, and usually by that night or the next day I felt better than I did before the needling.
So after three sessions of needling, I can report that I feel remarkably better. Could this be a placebo response? It’s possible, but a few days ago I exerted myself physically in a way that had previously provoked bad muscle spasms and a severe headache. This time it didn’t. I was sore, but in the way you feel after a good workout. It was a blessed feeling, and proof to me that the dry needling is doing what all the other doctors and medicines before had failed to do: healing me.
I plan to write another article about my dry needling experiences later in the year after I’ve had more sessions.