SIOUX CITY | When a co-worker suggested that Chris Reeves try dry needling to relieve her shoulder pain, Reeves said she was skeptical.

After tearing her rotator cuff and then undergoing surgery in June 2015, the 58-year-old Kingsley, Iowa, woman returned to her desk job at Family Health Care of Siouxland's corporate office. Lingering weakness in her shoulder led to muscles tightness in her shoulder blade and neck. Reeves received corticosteroid injections, visited a pain clinic and participated in physical therapy.

Nothing offered relief.

"My shoulder froze because I couldn't move it. It was very severe pain," said Reeves who fell on her shoulder a couple times. "I couldn't do anything. I couldn't golf anymore. I was in constant pain 24/7."

Eight months ago, Reeves decided to give dry needling a whirl.

The technique uses a very thin, solid filament needle to penetrate the skin in an effort to stimulate underlying myofascial trigger points and muscular and connective tissues. The goal is to create a local twitch response in the muscle to cause a spontaneous contraction and relaxation of muscle fibers, which has been shown to reduce pain and dysfunction.

"It's usually sore for up to a couple days, and then all of a sudden it's like, 'Wow, I have no pain,'" Reeves said as she sat in a treatment room at ATI Physical Therapy, where she receives dry needling in conjunction with physical therapy.

"It helped with the physical therapy because it loosened those muscles, so it was much easier to do those exercises."

Dry needling isn't based on the tenets of Chinese medicine like acupuncture, but on Western neuroanatomy and modern scientific study of the musculoskeletal system. The technique has been utilized by physical therapists to treat Achilles tendinitis, suboccipital headaches and neck pain among other conditions. It's not recommended for people who take blood thinners.

"Dry needling helps relieve tightness by breaking up those trigger points allowing the muscles to relax," said physical therapist and clinic director Blake Wagner, who has been offering dry needling for two years. He said dry needling is popular in other parts of the country, but is just beginning to catch on in Siouxland.

Wagner palpated Reeves' upper trapezius muscles to locate active trigger points or knots. He tapped the needle in and then worked it into a trigger point. Then he placed electrical stimulation on the needle.

"That's enough," Reeves said as her muscle slightly pulsed underneath Wagner's fingers.

Reeves, who described the sensation as the "zing" you feel when bumping your funny bone, said dry needling doesn't hurt.

"You can definitely tell when it's breaking up. I can feel that in there -- it just like relaxes," she said.

A session of dry needling takes about 15 minutes. Afterward, patients might experience giddiness, soreness, fatigue and thirst. Initially, Reeves came to ATI Physical Therapy, 3111 Gordon Drive, once a week for dry needling. Today, she's down to a single treatment a month.

"Now, it's kind of maintenance. We're working to eliminate it completely," Wagner said. "We're getting close."

Although approved by the American Physical Therapy Association and legal in most states when practiced by a physical therapist, dry needling is not covered by health insurance. Wagner said dry needling costs $65 a session at ATI Physical Therapy, but he said the cost is waived for patients who are already enrolled in physical therapy.

"Once you get those knots resolved -- you get that muscle back to a normal length and strengthen those muscles, those trigger points don't come back," he said. "The needling is just one piece of the whole pie. It all is in combination."

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Health and Lifestyles reporter

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