In fact, it’s what she does for a living. The smiling, Washington D.C. native is the only physical therapist in the Air Force certified to offer dry needle therapy … and the only practitioner of the relatively new pain remedy in Middle Georgia.
She came across the new skill after treating patients conventionally and finding that muscular pain for some was not completely resolved.
“A lot of times patients would come in and you’d try all the basics: bracing, resting, medication. The pain would get better, but it wouldn’t go away,” Johnston said. “I knew there was something wrong, but I just couldn’t get to it.”
Johnston, who has a doctorate in physical therapy, spent the first five years of her military career in the U.S. Army and a former Army mentor mentioned dry needling to her. She did some research, became intrigued and learned of seminars in Washington D.C. She began the course work in November of 2010 and passed the written and hands-on certifications in May of this year.
The Robins physical therapy flight commander said muscles are sometimes overlooked when patients experience pain. Joints and organs usually are the first suspects.
“But when you put your hands on muscles, you can often feel taut bands or knots,” she said. “In those taut bands generally will be a nodule called a trigger point. When you roll your finger over it, the patient will say, ‘Yes, yes, that’s my pain.’”
Taut bands or trigger points can result from a variety of causes – tension, injury or overuse of muscles. The next step is to take a thin needle and tap into the nodule, move the needle around and get deep into the muscle. Success comes when the patient experiences an involuntary twitch response.
“That causes a chemical reaction,” said Johnston. “The needle causes receptors to open and knock chemicals away that were blocking other receptors. That resets the fibers and the pain starts to improve.”
Marine Sgt. Justin Rosa is one patient who has undergone dry needle therapy at Robins. “I had chronic elbow pain and it wasn’t getting better,” he explained this week before a follow-on session.
“My range of motion has gone from garbage to great in about three weeks,” said the muscular Marine.
Rosa was good natured about the degree of discomfort caused by the probing needle. “Just don’t record my screams,” he said with laughter as Johnston began the process. “Usually my arm is useless for six hours after a treatment then it starts to feel a lot better.”
Johnston said improvement may not come for up to 48 hours for some people.
“A lot of times patients walk out of my office saying, ‘What did you do to me?,’” she admitted. “I just tell them they will be thinking unhappy thoughts about me for about two days then they will be grateful.”
It doesn’t help everyone. “A few patients will say it doesn’t work,” Johnston added. “But for the right situation, it gives tremendous results.”
The physical therapist said dry needling has direct application for patients wounded in battle.
“It’s great for amputees who have phantom limb pain,” she said. “Also, patients who have suffered severe muscle trauma find that other muscles try to pick up the slack and become overused. An overused muscle tends to develop trigger points and you can knock them out and help with the pain.”
Dry needling is not acupuncture, she insists.
“Acupuncturists focus on getting your Chi back in alignment,” Johnston reported. “They work along your body’s meridians. I’m not affecting a patient’s Chi. I’m working the pain. I’m looking at knots that have specific pain referral patterns.”
Dry needling could spread throughout the Air Force.
“I presented it to my Air Force peers in June at our annual symposium,” Johnston reported. “A lot of them were like me – they didn’t know this existed and it fueled a lot of interest. A number are now receiving training and hopefully we will eventually have at least one dry needler at every installation.”