Monday, April 23, 2012

Needling your way out of a tight spot

Hurts so good
Wouldn’t it be nice to be indestructible?  Haven’t we all had those periods in our training and racing where we feel like all we need to do is add a little more mileage, a little more quality, and we’ll be right where we want to be?  Then bang, we’re down.  Achilles, hamstring, hip, knee, foot.  What happened?  What was the straw that broke the camel’s back?  You look back and try to unwind how you got to where you are, which is…injured! 

Strength training, core training.  Yes, you’ve heard it, read it and maybe are doing it.  Good for you.  I do it too, but sometimes it’s not enough for the amount of stress we put on our bodies.  What I want to talk about is something a little more unconventional, and something I have used extensively here in Hong Kong that can really help unwind a tight body.  Dry needle therapy.  No, not acupuncture, although acupuncture may help with other issues. 

According to Liam Fitzpatrick, an Australian sports therapist who specializes in trigger point, muscle and fascia release using various modalities, including dry needling, “Dry needling is very useful when a specific trigger point needs to be released. It can be more effective than hands on soft tissue work (massage and stretching) because the introduction of a foreign body into the muscle or other soft tissue stimulates a fight response and the body sends all the 'good stuff/fresh blood' to that specific area to flush out the muscular contraction or adhesion. With massage or stretching, the target is very broad and the response not quite so strong.”  Sound like what you need?  Read on…

Using Needles to Unlock Muscles

My first experience with dry needling was in South Africa.  Four days before Comrades last year, I found myself on a sports physiotherapist table in Durban hoping for a solid rub down before the race.  The physio thoroughly worked through my legs, hips and back, but got to my calves and said “wow, this calf is kind of locked up.  Do you mind if I pop a needle in there?”  Knowing that Comrades was an uphill course that year, and knowing that my calf was my weak spot, and judging from her thoroughness and expertise in physiotherapy (she was the lead physio for all physio stations along the Comrades course), I thought, what the heck, I trust her, let’s see how it goes.   Basically she took an acupuncture type needle that was longer and broader in diameter than a typical acupuncture needle, and inserted it into my calf.  Deep.  Into the belly of my soleus.  I felt a deep ache as if my calf was on the verge of a strong contraction.  Then she cheerfully said “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.  Give a shout if you need anything.”  So for 15 minutes I sweated, ready to let out a cry at any moment, thinking my calf was going to go into a horrible contraction.  Relax relax relax I told myself.  The contraction never came.  Slowly the muscle released.    I was very sore that night and the next day, but I had a range a motion I haven’t had in a long time.  And I had zero tightness or issues running the 54 miles of pavement with an uphill slant that was Comrades 2011.

Right where it's tight
Dry Vs Wet, Acupuncture Vs Sport Therapy

“Dry needling” means that the therapist is not using any fluid for injections.  The needle is dry.  If the needle was a vehicle for transporting anything into the body (i.e. flu shot), it would be a “wet” needle.
How does dry needling differ from acupuncture?  Acupuncture works on a meridian system where needles are inserted into the body along meridians that tie to energy pathways in the body as well as organs (i.e. Kidney, Liver, Spleen).  The goal of acupuncture is to move your qi (pronounced “chi”), and to stimulate different organs that may be in a depleted state.  I have used acupuncture for helping with sleep, digestion, as well as to help recover energetically. 

Dry needling for sports therapy differs significantly in two ways:  1) The needle is placed where the “pain” or tightness is; and 2) Needles are typically longer/larger and are inserted deeper than acupuncture needles.  Often dry needles for sports injuries will be inserted at an angle until the therapist hits some resistance which may signal an adhesion or a locked up muscle.  The needle is then just slightly drawn back and possibly reinserted deeper.  
Package of Needles

There is an art to dry needling.  If you want to try it, make sure you find someone who is trained and well practiced in dry needling for sports therapy.  When I was living in Bend, Oregon I couldn’t find anyone who practiced dry needling, so I asked an acupuncturist to try the dry needling technique.  Unfortunately, I never experienced the degree of muscle release that I was looking for.  Once I moved to Hong Kong, I sought out a therapist who used dry needles, thinking HK was a place where I could find this East meets West type therapy.  Here in Hong Kong, I see Liam Fitzpatrick at Myoactive Therapy.  Liam has been using dry needling along with other modalities on athletes here in Hong Kong for the past 6+years.  He has been instrumental in getting me back on my feet after a hip and hamstring injury left over from tripping on a run shortly after Western States last year.  It’s only been in the last six weeks of consistent dry needling of my hamstring, hip and back that I have been able to get back to running without any pain. 

Running without pain is all we ask for, right?    Then we can add in the mileage and the quality that enables us to do what we love - - run on the edge.