As an active, wellness-obsessed 26-year-old, I don’t exactly fit the stereotype of someone who complains about lower back pain. However, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been living with a dull, consistent ache that massages and acupuncture have done nothing to relieve. I’ve tried standing desks, strengthened my core with Pilates, stretch regularly in yoga, and even use a fit ball at work regularly to switch things up, but nothing has really helped – until I tried dry needling.
I came across the technique after a friend recommended “The Health Place,” a massage therapy clinic frequented by professional athletes in Brisbane, Australia, where I was visiting. In the two months leading up to my visit, I’d spent more than 50 hours traveling on planes, and my back was, in a word, shattered. The consultant suggested I book in for dry needling after hearing my concerns, and promised an hour session would be the most effective way to sort out my discomfort before I jumped back on a (20-hour!) flight to New York. It’s not just for backs though – The Health Place’s sports and remedial therapist, and myotherapist Dalibor Bendzala BHSc (MST) Dip. Sport Dip. RMT, tells me that anyone experiencing discomfort in their shoulders, neck, or anywhere else on your body could see great results.
With a little research I discovered that dry needling is a technique that was first used in Europe in the 1970s. It involves inserting small needles to “deactivate” trigger points in your muscle. If this sounds a lot like acupuncture to you, it’s similar, but there are some key differences. Bendzala explained that while acupuncture is an Eastern treatment that works with your body’s meridian system and with the aim of improving everything from fertility to digestion, dry needling is a Western practice directly releasing muscular “trigger points” that cause tightness, pain, and injury.
“Trigger points are the tight fibrous areas of muscle, which can impact on the muscles performance and often cause pain locally as well as referred pain,” he said, adding: “Needles are single use and inserted into the muscle fiber where the trigger point has been located by the therapist.”
Upon arriving for my appointment, my therapist, Ange, heard my concerns, and took a look at my back. “Broad, dull aches across your lower back are often caused by tightness through the hips and glutes,” she told me, while I lay on my stomach across a massage table. The prescription? Six needles across the top of my butt and lower back for a little less than 10 minutes, combined with half an hour of firm remedial massage. She also added some needles across my shoulders and neck to ease some tension. Once inserted, Ange twisted around some of the needles until she really hit the spot (ouch!), which Bendzala says is a common practice.
“The practitioner may move the needle to find the trigger point and usually a referred pain is felt by the client followed by a local twitch response. This is the way the muscle releases. After two or three twitch responses are felt, the needle is taken out.”
Now, if having a needle directly inserted into a knot in your back sounds painful, well, it kind of is – but it’s that satisfying, remedial-massage type of pain that you know will pay dividends later. Therapists usually have a degree in health science and myotherapy (be sure to ask what qualifications yours has if you’re planning on trying this treatment), and the session – mine included – often involves a remedial massage component.
A dull ache persisted for about 24 hours after the session (Bendzala assures me this is normal, phew!), and then, nothing. Nothing! It was the most relief from the lower back pain that I’ve felt, well, ever. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to be a permanent fix – apparently I should be heading back every four weeks and as often as weekly if the pain comes back or if I’m planning on spending another 50 hours in an economy airplane seat any time soon.
Good news: There are dry needling practitioners all over the U.S. To book your own appointment, look up an expert in your local area and be sure to check their credentials first.