In 2012, the Redskins became one of just five teams in the NFL to embrace a revolutionary form of physical therapy called dry needling.
“A western view is that we’re using the same needles as acupuncture, but we go significantly deeper into the tissue and we actually find the trigger point,” explained Redskins assistant athletic trainer Elliott Jermyn. “Trigger points are areas of hyper-irritated tissue, and most people have these points in their bodies.”
In the past, trainers used their hands and foam rollers to massage out areas of irritation. This process is often laborious and can take upwards of 30 minutes per injury.
With dry needling, the trainers can conduct a screening for areas of tightness or weakness, comparing the results to the baseline testing. The effects of 30 minutes on the foam roller can be equaled with only one-two minutes of needling.
“Once we identify an area that’s irritated, we can go in and palpate with the needle and find the trigger point,” Jermyn said. “As soon as the needle goes into the area, what we’re looking for is a local twitch response. The local twitch response is the body’s reaction to the trigger point loosening.
“Once that trigger point has been eradicated, one of the things we usually see right away is an increased range in motion, and an increase in muscle production. The effectiveness is immediate, and there’s no doubt that these guys like them.”
Jermyn said that no formal surveys have been conducted with the players, but that roughly half of the players get treated with this procedure on a weekly or biweekly basis. Of those, 75 percent have had a good rate of success, with 50 percent experiencing “extremely good success.”
“[In 2011], we found that a lot of guys were going to get this technique done outside of our training room,” he said. “Obviously, with the Redskins, we want to make sure we have as much contact with our players as possible, so we’re not sending them out. We want to keep them in-house as much as we can, and we identified this as a need.
“When we started, there was definitely some hesitancy from some of the guys, with the needles,” he said, holding up a particularly intimidating model. “But once some of the guys had it done and some of the stories got passed down the line, certainly they were a lot more willing to try.”
While it may sound like a cure-all for damaged muscles, Jermyn cautioned that it has limitations.
First of all, the affected area may perform better with needling and rest, but the process temporarily leaves muscles sore and weakened. As a result, most players do not get needled after Friday afternoon, leaving them in prime condition for gameday.
There are also ethical considerations with correcting an irritated muscle that should be examined further.
“We have to be careful that we’re not correcting somebody who maybe shouldn’t be corrected right away,” he said. “To give you an extreme example of what I’m not going to do: if someone comes off the field with a torn hamstring, I’m not going to throw a needle in him right away to get him back on the field.
“There is an ethical dilemma. Our job is to get guys ready to go out and play, but we never ever sacrifice a player’s safety. Player safety is No. 1 all the time, but our job is to get guys ready to go out on the field. It is possible that with the needles and some of our other therapeutic resources, we could potentially mask a bigger problem.”
With that being taken into account, Jermyn said the procedure has already paid dividends for what they are able to do for the athletes.
“During training camp, we might be dealing with upwards of 30-35 athletes per day, and your hands get extremely tired from massaging,” he said. “I can have someone come in for 15-20 minutes and try to manually release the trigger point, or I can spend two minutes and let the needle do the work for me. That’s really where we’ve found some good success.”
Jermyn noted that only physical therapists, chiropractors and physicians were able to conduct dry needling. But don’t be surprised if this becomes mainstream practice in the next few years.
“I would imagine that in the next five-six years, we’re going to see the number of teams using this rise drastically,” he said. “We really try to identify where the problem is and address the problem at its source.”