Section: Saint Barnabas Medical Center News

Pulling the Trigger: Physical Therapists Trained In New Methods To Treat Musculoskeletal Disorders

12/06/2016

When physical therapists are treating chronic pain or impaired movement, they rely on a host of therapies, from electric stimulation and massage to stretching and strength training. The physical therapists at Saint Barnabas Medical Center are trained in a new method to treat musculoskeletal disorders. It is known by two names: trigger point therapy or dry needling.

As the latter implies, this therapy involves inserting sterilized, thin-filament needles into the patient’s muscle or other soft tissue. Specifically, the physical therapist targets a “trigger point”—a knot in the tissue, caused by trauma, overuse, poor posture or simply lifting something heavy. This knot is painful in itself, and it may cause pain that radiates out to other parts of the body, from the back down the leg, for example, or from the neck to the head.

The needle causes a biochemical reaction in the knot that relaxes it, says Charlie Curtis, MS, PT, DPT, Cert MDT, director of outpatient rehabilitation services at Saint Barnabas Medical Center. “We look for a twitch response, which indicates that the reaction takes place,” he says. “The muscle twitches, and the synapses between the nerves are flooded with neurochemicals that break down the problem.” It causes a bit of discomfort at first, but then, “you feel the pain is gone.”

If this sounds a lot like acupuncture, it is—and it’s not. “We use similar tools but different techniques,” Curtis says. Acupuncture needles are inserted into the body based on ancient concepts of body patterns called meridians to release energy, called Qi (pronounced chee). Trigger point therapy is based on modern scientific study of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. Research has shown that the therapy does control pain and reduce muscle tension and dysfunction.

Once the trigger point has been resolved—it can take one or several treatments—the therapist can use more traditional treatments like stretching and strength training to further the rehabilitation process. Curtis says that, along with treating chronic pain, it is useful in treating migraine headaches, joint pain, spinal disc problems, tendonitis, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, computer-related disorders due to poor posture, pelvic pain and pelvic floor issues. But, it’s not for everyone— pregnant women in their first trimester, those with metal allergies or taking blood thinners and some other patients should not use this treatment.

For those who can, though, Curtis and all of Saint Barnabas’ 18 physical therapists are now certified to offer it. “It’s another tool in our arsenal to give our patients the latest options,” he says.

Learn more about the Comprehensive Rehabilitaion Program located at the Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center.

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