Trigger Warning: this story discusses pain that happened with a professional dry needling practitioner. If you have experienced pain under the direction of a health professional this may be triggering.
If I could handle a little pain, I could be pain free. "Just a pinch," Matt said. Matt was the head physical therapist that partnered with my college.
He told me to take a deep breath, relax and I would be able to have way less discomfort in my shoulder from years of throwing the javelin.
I was nervous. After signing a waiver, the PT started the process. I felt the "just a pinch" and it honestly wasn't as bad as I was imagining. Until, I felt the scrapping. I could feel the needle digging across my muscle. Matt said nothing. I was trying to convince myself this was normal but I didn't like it.
My palms started sweating. I asked Matt if I should feel that sensation. He assured me most athletes feel nothing and it was normal to drag the needle once it was inside me to break up some of the tissue so more new blood could come in the area and heal my shoulder. I stayed quiet as the session went on growing increasingly more uncomfortable and questioning if I shouldn't feel pain like the other athletes he had worked with. My entire body was getting tight. He noticed and assured me it would only be a few minutes more.
I thought after a few days, my shoulder would feel better. But no such luck. After a few days, I got back into contact with Matt and he said it would take a few sessions.
Wanting to heal and get back to competition, I went back 3 times. Three more sessions of anxiety. Each time I dreaded the needle going in and the feel of the tip scrapping inside my shoulder. My shoulder pain persisted and eventually, I just accepted that my pain was normal. It would take time before I learned about strengthening my shoulder to release some of the pain and that the dry needling wasn't the only treatment to help me heal.
Years later, I met Francois, a physiotherapist who specializes in physical, emotional and mental prep. I had been struggling with heel pain for almost 7 months and I didn't know what to do. I had done almost every recovery protocol I could think of from ice baths to massages, cold laser therapy and more. Everything I could think of besides dry needling...
Francois suggested dry needling and my face immediately got tense. Everything thing from the college experience of scrapping inside my shoulder bubbled up again. I felt every emotion that I felt when I first got dry needled.
I felt like I was back on the PT table in college feeling like I initially didn't have a choice. It was either dry needling or continue with my pain. After hearing the benefits again, I reluctantly told him "ok, let's try it."
As he got the needle out, my palms started sweating. I could remember the first experience and the pain. My body got tight. And I held my breath. He immediately stopped and asked, what was happening. I told him the previous experience I had with Matt. He immediately stopped, slowed down and had a conversation with me that has changed my entire approach to recovery.
Francois, surprised and understanding, said something I never thought about. He told me that if I felt anxiety around a treatment, or emotional pain, it could cause more harm than the good from releasing a tight muscle. He told me we could take it slow to try or do something completely different to relieve my pain. It was the first time I really felt like I was having a conversation with a practitioner who understood how I felt and didn't try to force me into a specific treatment.
I went on to do the dry needling session after feeling heard. We addressed my concerns and he didn't pump or scrape the needle inside me. He let me touch the needles and guide his hand into where I was feeling tight. He also went with attaching electric muscle stimulation.
Dry needling with the electric muscle stimulation instead of the scrapping and bobbing.
I felt much better in my heel but the amount of emotional energy it took to do this treatment just wasn't worth it.
Francois let me know that if it relieves physical pain but causes emotional pain, then it's not really benefiting my as a whole person. We switched to manual therapy and I started seeing results that matched the dry needling with little to no stress.
Today, I choose not get dry needled. I'm learning what works for me and my body and I think more athletes, if they are ready to, can create the space to advocate for themselves and get to learn and understand what works for their bodies.
A List For Beneficial Recovery:
Pain Perception: It can be helpful to evaluate your pain threshold on a 0-10 scale and recognize that what may be tolerable for one athlete could be intolerable for another. A recovery method should not push you beyond your acceptable limits.
Immediate Relief: Effective recovery can be more beneficial if you find immediate relief. Especially the protocols that are higher on your personal pain scale. If the method doesn't offer noticeable improvement shortly after the session, consider exploring other options that align more closely with your body's response.
Personal Tailoring: Acknowledge the demands of your sport, your body's unique set of circumstances, and any existing conditions, both physical and emotional. Tailor your recovery protocol to your individual needs, ensuring a more precise and effective approach.
Holistic Approach: Embrace recovery methods that treat your body holistically, body and soul. Recovery can be very powerful when you as a whole feel like and can prove it is beneficial to your recovery.
Embrace the process of testing, observing, and deciding based on your unique experience. Your body is a canvas, and the art of recovery is a personalized masterpiece waiting to be unveiled. Trust yourself, explore the possibilities, and craft a recovery plan that resonates with the unique rhythm of your athletic journey.