A small group of people were on pins and needles — or at least needles — Saturday at Fort Lewis College, as members of the school’s exercise physiology department and therapists from Absolute Physical Therapy conducted a research project studying dry needling.
The study, which ties into student senior seminar projects, was measuring the effects of dry needling of the tibialis posterior muscle, said Missy Thompson, associate professor of health sciences. The muscle is one of the main controllers of the arch of the foot, and the researchers are interested in seeing what effects dry needling have on its function, particularly whether it has an effect on how force is distributed on the bottom of the foot.
Dry needling is not well researched as a therapeutic technique.
“That’s one of the reasons why we’re doing this,” she said. “This is definitely cutting-edge research. And it has a variety of different physiological effects, but it isn’t well understood.”
Dry needling involves inserting microfilament needles into muscles to produce an effect, but differs from acupuncture, said SueB Earl, physical therapist specializing in treatment of the foot and ankle at Absolute. Physical therapists who do it place the needles based on their training in neuromuscular health rather than Eastern medicine.
As Earl practices it, two needles are inserted into the muscle and then electrified to stimulate the neurological system.
“We typically put it into the dysfunctional muscle to either facilitate or inhibit that muscle or just to make a change,” she said. “It’s been a practice-changer. I just learned it in 2013. It’s only been in the profession about 10 years, and oh my gosh, it’s just been awesome the way I can turn muscles on and turn them off.
“I’m really excited about this study because I see clinically that I make people better, but it’s not backed by research. So this is pretty exciting – to see if it actually makes a difference.”
In theory, at least, needling of the tibialis posterior improves foot posture and decreases foot pain. Earl said
The muscle is an important stabilizer of the foot – it is important for slowing down when you strike the ground and also for propelling when you push off, said Amanda St. Pierre, a physical therapist and owner of Absolute.
“It is also a tendon and a muscle that frequently is a problem for people and becomes tendinitis and shin splints,” she said.
“It’s my favorite muscle in the body,” Earl said. “It’s a long skinny muscle with a big job.”
The muscle works to hold up the arch when the foot is on the ground and gets weakened and inhibited in people with flat feet, so that is who Saturday’s study focused on. Participants in the study were recruited mostly from the college campus.
After an initial intake to make sure they qualify to participate in the study, participants went through a functional movement screening in which a motion capture video system took measurements as they performed a variety of stretching and jumping activities. That process and measurements taken on a mat that measures pressure distribution established a baseline for participants’ range of movement. They then went through the dry needling process and the measurements were taken again to see what, if anything changed.
Of particular interest, Earl said, is whether the needling has a measurable effect on the varus swing – the way the heel swings inward as one lifts their calf muscles.
Zoe Preskorn, an exercise physiology major at FLC and one of the participants in the study, said the there was a feeling of soreness in the muscle after the dry needling. She said she was interested in the study because of its implications for strengthening muscles to improve athletic performance.
Thompson said the department tries to team up with organizations outside the college as frequently as possible.
“This is awesome practical experience for the students,” she said. “A lot of our students want to go into PT, so it’s definitely ideal. This is the kind of research that students would typically conduct in graduate school, so it’s pretty unique for Fort Lewis to be able to offer these types of opportunities. It’s not something you’re going to be able to do at larger schools for sure.”