How young is too young for dry needling?

As a physical therapist practicing in Georgia, I have the privilege of being able to use the skill of trigger point dry needling to help patients with myofascial pain and dysfunction, joint stiffness issues, acute and chronic injuries, tendon problems…the list goes on.

Working with a majority of younger patients, I often get questions like “Do you dry needle kids? What’s the youngest patient you have needled? Will my 10 year old benefit from needling like I have?” Those are all good questions. Before I answer them, I think we should cover a little background on this whole needling thing.

What is trigger point dry needling?

In a nutshell, dry needling is a form of manual therapy where the physical therapist or other trained practitioner inserts a solid filament needle into a trigger point in a muscle. This may stimulate a local twitch response in the area, creating a cascade response that ultimately results in a release of the trigger point…or at least that is what we believe happens.

While there is growing evidence for the effectiveness of trigger point dry needling and several studies on what is happening during the technique, the reality is that nobody knows exactly what happens during each treatment in each person. We just know it works and have seen it work time and time again. We believe that the response may be chemical, neurological, mechanical, all of the above, or some of the above. This may vary from place to place between patients or even in various locations within the same patient. Or perhaps it’s a higher order sensorimotor experience change in the brain’s cortex–which I suppose would technically be all of the above depending on who you ask. Either way, there can be great changes that when used in adjunct with other physical therapy tools, pave the way for the patient to see outstanding functional changes.

If you’re still not sure what dry needling is, I recommend you visit these websites for some information:

Back 2 Motion Physical Therapy Patient flyer

Kinetacore Physical Therapy Education

Myopain Seminars

MoveForwardPT.com

Is dry needling the hot new thing in physical therapy? Why have I never heard of it?

In some places and in some schools of thought—yes or no. In the grand scheme of the constantly-evolving practice of physical therapy, dry needling is the new kid on the block in many states and in many areas of PT practice. You may not have heard of it because while most physical therapists possess the skills to do it, not all 50 states allow them to do it yet.

Where is dry needling performed by physical therapists?

What physical therapists can perform trigger point dry needling?

Currently, dry needling requires advanced training beyond the realm of entry-level doctorate level physical therapy education. It is recommended that new graduates wait a year or so to begin training in this practice as good performance of dry needling requires more advanced skills. While new graduates have many excellent skills, the decision-making and safety behind dry needling takes extra time to develop the “finesse” of performance.

Is dry needling the best physical therapy treatment out there?

That is all a matter of opinion. But generally-the answer is probably that there is not one BEST physical therapy treatment out there. Don’t get me wrong-dry needling is one very helpful tool for many patients, but it is not THE tool. In states where dry needling is not legal for PTs to perform, patients see great results with a plethora of other treatment options. Not being able to perform dry needling does not make a clinician any less skilled; likewise, being able to perform dry needling does not necessarily make someone more skilled. It’s just an additional skill to add to the “PT skill toolbox.”

What’s most important are the “above the neck” skills of decision making, assessment, clinical reasoning, and finding the BEST treatment option for EACH patient that allows him or her to optimize the ability to move. See great recent blog about this here. This ability requires a good balance between manual therapy/dry needling, functional movement assessment and re-education, strengthening, stretching, and the good old fashioned teaching and learning interventions my patients lovingly call “Julie’s Sermons.”

So now that we’ve established what it is, where it is, who can do it, and how it fits into PT practice, I can move on to the question I know you’ve all been asking…

But Julie…do you needle KIDS?

My answer is usually something along the lines of “Well, it depends on your definition of kid.See my first post in this blog to understand my definition of kid. Some “kids” are 44 year old elite athletes who cry like babies when I so much as mention the word “needle.” Some kids are 11 year old elite gymnasts who come in begging for needling and swear it is the one thing that keeps them competing at Level 9.

In general, I tend to look not at chronological age, but a plethora of other contributing factors. This requires the need to use all of my senses to determine just who is the right candidate. One could argue that this rule applies to any patient of any age. Chronological age is one factor. Other factors include emotional stability, emotional and cognitive maturity, education level, personal pain experience, activity level, overall/general health, and tendency to faint or scream at the topic of needles.

So, it’s complicated. If you’re looking for an age “limit” recommendation on dry needling, you’re reading the wrong blog. What I can definitively tell you is maybe you want to steer clear of the super young children. Maybe under 6. Then again, I’ve heard from colleagues that it’s been done on younger kids before, as have trigger point injections performed by some of my physician colleagues. It’s just not black and white.

What I can also tell you is that as of this blog posting date, the oldest patient I have needled is 82 and the youngest is 11.

See this resource from a few pediatric and adolescent sports medicine experts on the practice of dry needling in this population.

Let’s dissect a few of these factors to determine which kid is the right needling candidate.

Emotional stability and maturity

I am not going to lie to anyone. Dry needling can be a little uncomfortable. In general I find that anyone who is not in an emotional place where some discomfort can be tolerated may not be the best candidate. On the other hand-some patients can be fearful of movement/exercise and prefer the security and relief that needling brings after treatment, despite discomfort. Sometimes it’s just emotionally easier when passive treatment is performed on them. They can get a little emotionally attached to the technique. This can be a problem too.

Kids and teenagers—and even adults–can be afraid when it comes to medical interventions. Fear and anxiety can sometimes improve with some coaching and the patient will eventually agree to try dry needling. Others are totally emotionally on board, and then it maybe didn’t live up to their expectations—so they jump ship and ask to not have it performed again. See what I mean? It’s complicated.

Cognitive Maturity

“Wait so, you’re telling me this may be uncomfortable. Remind me again how doing something that’s uncomfortable is going to make me feel better?” To some kids, particularly younger kids—this concept is not even an approachable topic of conversation for me. From a cognitive maturity standpoint, some kids just haven’t developed the ability to discern the “later” benefit of doing an uncomfortable “now” treatment. I general I see that in many kids this improves from age 9-11. But then again-it really just depends on the kid.

I also find—and this is my TOTAL anecdotal experience—that sometimes the more the parent is on board with the kid having the technique done, the less the kid is willing to try it. There are many exceptions to this. Some kids and teens do exactly the opposite of what the parents recommend. Most parents would probably agree this concept isn’t exclusive to physical therapy sessions! In other cases, the parent says “poke him” and the kid says “let’s do it!”

But—I use some definite discretion here. Bottom line: I have a strict rule that I must get a resounding YES from the kid or teen before I glove up and pull out the needles. An “I guess” or “Whatever my mom says” just won’t cut it. Sometimes it takes kids a few sessions to warm up to it. Sometimes we try it and it doesn’t really seem to help—largely because I don’t believe they truly understand what I’m doing. The good news is we have so many other interventions we can use that sometimes we don’t even need to go through with needling.

Education level

It’s important any patient be at an education level that they can understand the basic concepts of benefits, risks, alternatives, and outcomes required of an informed consent. Generally, most kids at about 8th or 9th grade can handle a mature discussion on the pros and cons needling without a lot of parental intervention.

What I find often is that the patient who is not WELL educated on medical procedures, but ALMOST well educated is the biggest threat to dry needling candidacy. These are kids who are super smart and have done a little research on their own. Perhaps they have consulted Google, their high school anatomy class, or just talked to friends. Needless to say—they thought that because they knew the name of one muscle in the vicinity of their injury or pain, that it MUST be the muscle that needed to be dry needled.

And kids can be very black and white about it—believing dry needling is the only thing that will fix it. Kids can be very smart, but let me remind you about cognitive and emotional maturity. They generally don’t develop their higher level processing and abstract thinking skills until late high school, college, or even mid adulthood. Some people never develop it. So they firmly believe that putting a needle in the muscle will immediately fix their problem that has been going on for months.

Anyone who knows me knows that this is not quite how I operate, nor how I believe humans operate. I am not a one-and-done type of physical therapist. I get down to the source of WHY that muscle is affected due to how the patient moves or how the patient believes he or she should move. Address that first and see if the trigger point is still there later. Then we’ll talk about putting needles in the serratus posterior inferior. Yes, someone asked me to specifically do that and no, I’m not trained to put a needle there.

(End rant)

Personal pain experience

Someone call Lorimer and David. They can explain this part way better than me, but I’ll take a stab at it (pun intended). I could probably go on for days about how a person’s experience with pain is highly individualized. Some people get a hangnail and it is the most painful thing they’ll ever describe. My good friend just gave birth to a nearly 9 pound kiddo without the use of drugs or any intervention. She didn’t say it wasn’t painful, but she certainly lived to tell about it with a smile on her face. I’ve seen 15 year olds burst into tears when I told them I was not going to needle the tiny knot in their back muscle because I did not believe it would be beneficial.

Pain is emotional.

Pain is an output from the brain. See this post to explain that further or the video below to understand pain better.

For some, dry needling is a valuable tool to help people navigate through nociception, central sensitivity, blurred sensorimotor maps, freaked out “protectometers,” or any other great descriptions for that thing we call “pain.” Some people look at you like you have 10 heads when you recommend dry needling. Some are completely convinced it will not help them, while others call themselves “dry needling evangelists.”

For kids, a large part of why I haven’t gone younger than 11 years old is that GENERALLY (not the bold and italics there please) speaking, most kids are healthy and do not have a lot of experience with pain. Generally, pain at this age is highly driven by emotion, fear, and a lot of internalizing of parents’ experiences with pain. Simply put-most kids learn how to cope with pain based on how other family members and their culture breeds them to cope with pain.

Having said all of that—in any person who has very little experience with pain, an injury is often treatable without a lot of passive or manual intervention. I’m not knocking the value of these therapies, but most of these people have not yet learned that “someone else can fix this for me.” They’re open to doing exercises and not afraid of moving. For a few fearful patients, a lot of times we may do manual therapy and/or needling to coax them back into movement. They’ve had pain for so long or on so many instances that they no longer know “which way is up” so to speak. They don’t know what helps or what hurts them, so they just assume avoid all movement and opt for passive treatment.

Needless to say, pain can be very individualized. Even in kids. We have to determine who is the right candidate based on our interpretation of his or her individual pain experience.

What other factors might a PT consider?

Generally, I encourage all patients to start or maintain a level of physical activity. I try and minimize the amount of time that I perform treatments on the patient. The patient is with me maybe 2 hours a week and with themselves (7 X 24)-2 hours. That’s a lot of hours out in the world by themselves. I tell all patients that “movement is medicine.” I’m not expecting my patients to go run a marathon, but everyone has to do something. Kids included. Most kids are pretty active, but some aren’t. I find that age is not a factor here. If a kid is not active, he or she will probably not respond well in the long run to dry needling or to any other interventions. They must learn to take an active approach to caring for themselves.

As for fear of needles: if someone is legitimately terrified of needles-we don’t even go there. This is a screening question I ask all patients when approaching the topic. This can be an issue in kids, though I often find that adults are more afraid of needles than kids. Kids have to get shots all the time for school and have yearly well checks, so they aren’t strangers to needles. Some people just need a little coaching to be ok with needling, while others will tell me the second they find out that we do dry needling that we will NOT be trying this.

Lastly…what caused the trigger point in the first place? Are trigger points really all that bad?

NO! Trigger points happen in everyone. They can be angry little creatures, but they don’t always have to be the problem. Oftentimes they are the result of poor movement strategy. I know several physicians who have learned that dry needling can help patients and refer patients to PT “Just for dry needling.” They are shortchanging the patient when they tell them this. The patient comes in with the understanding that dry needling will fix their problem. What most physicians aren’t trained to do is analyze and retrain movement. And that’s not anything against their exceptional skills. That’s just not a huge part of medical school, residency, and fellowship. That’s part of PT school and advanced PT training.

So, does my kid need dry needling or not?

While there may be exceptions, typically the younger patients (7-13) do not necessarily need dry needling as the first line of defense. Typically, even with the elite young athlete, we do all sorts of kid-friendly and sports-friendly therapy and the kids get better quickly. Sometimes it’s just a matter of quelling their fears and showing them that a little heel or knee pain can get better with some education, strengthening, and proper retraining.’

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