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Dry Needling: The New Cure for Runner’s Knee

FitnessThe Cure for Runner's Knee Involves… a Needle?

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Just as you were learning what "cupping" is, now you need to know about "dry needling."

If you've ever suffered from persistent running-related pain in your knee, researchers at Ohio State might have a suggestion: Jab it with a needle.

Researchers and physical therapists Matt Briggs and Lucas Van Etten are among the first to explore dry needling, a new-ish form of physical therapy that involves plunging a thin, monofilament needle into your muscular trouble spots. "There's a theory that dry needling changes the way nerves and muscles function, and may even change the way our spinal cord and brain perceives pain," says Briggs, also a professor and director of the school's Sports Physical Therapy Residency.

Anecdotally, it works. Scientifically, no one's sure why.

The duo's research focuses on runner's knee, the purposefully vague diagnosis for knee and knee-adjacent pain that persists even after a clear MRI or X-ray. It's both common and hard to treat, as the pain often has no anatomical source. Runners often chalk it up to, uh, a lot of running.

When effective, the dry needling process eases the stressed muscle (or "trigger point") and increases blood flow. That's really it: There's no medicine or fluid injection like there is with a flu shot, hence the "dry."

Though the process uses acupuncture needles, that's where the similarity stops. Acupuncture is based in an Eastern-style holistic approach that targets energy systems and stuff, whereas dry needling is grounded in good old Western anatomy and neurophysiology. (GO AMERICA!)

Anecdotally, it works. Scientifically, no one's sure why. Dry needling is new enough that there's no standard of care for it. It's actually only legal in about half the states, and Briggs and Van Etten's research will be among the first studies into its efficacy in a controlled environment. (They're looking for volunteers, if you're in Columbus and hobbling.)

Briggs and Van Etten have already used it pro athletes, OSU Buckeyes, weekend warriors, and themselves. "I wouldn't be surprised if there are Olympians doing this today," Briggs says. "It's not as visual or advertised as cupping. But it's very common in the pro and Olympic ranks." Van Etten tried it on his own shoulder when he first arrived at Ohio State. "The next day," he says, "my shoulder muscles were looser than they'd been in years."

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