Dry needling is all the rage in physical therapy circles, but there’s also a little confusion among patients about what it is and what it actually does. For some patients, the idea of using needles to relieve pain may sound a bit scary. However, it can be a useful part of many physical therapy treatment plans and brings relief to many patients with ongoing, hard to tackle pain or limited movement.
What Is Dry Needling?
Dry needling is a procedure that uses a “dry” needle (meaning no injection or medication) to get to sensitive trigger points in the muscles that your physical therapist can’t get to with their hands. Practitioners use super thin acupuncture needles–but dry needling is not acupuncture.
Unlike acupuncture, which is considered an alternative therapy based on traditional Chinese medicine, dry needling is regarded as a western medical practice according to the American Physical Therapy Association. While acupuncture is all about directing the body’s energy flow, dry needling instead uses physiological and anatomical principles of western medicine to target specific areas of pain known as trigger points. It’s more and more common to see dry needling offered in your physical therapist’s office.
How Does Dry Needling Work?
Dry needling lets your physical therapists get to muscles they can’t touch with their hands using thin needles to penetrate the skin. The needles allow your therapist reach your body’s myofascial trigger points–sensitive points in the connective tissue that surrounds your muscles. Simply put, releasing those trigger points can relieve pain and reduce stiffness as the needle creates a response in the muscle, causing it to relax and also improving circulation and reducing inflammation. It usually takes several visits to achieve the relief we’re looking for.
What Kinds Of Injuries And Conditions Can Be Treated With Dry Needling?
Dry needling is especially useful for conditions that cause sustained pain or limit movement, and we see lots of patients with lower back and joint pain.
Dry needling can be a useful part of treatment plans for a range of conditions–from athletes with shoulder pain or tendonitis to patients with lower back pain, sciatic pain or piriformis issues in the buttocks/upper leg.
Some other conditions treated with dry needling may be more surprising– temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) and severe headaches are two good examples.
Does Dry Needling Hurt?
A study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine determined dry needling to be “very safe” when done by a trained practitioner. Our physical therapists are already anatomy experts and get specialized training in dry needling to make sure that the treatment is safe for patients. In fact, many of our clients experience no pain at all. If there is any pain, it’s usually very brief–just a slight pain sensation or muscle twitch as the needle is inserted. Sterile needles are always used.
How Effective Is Dry Needling?
Dry needling has been used to treat pain and stiffness for decades. The JABFM study, based on multiple scientific reviews, indicates that dry needling can be an effective tool in treating musculoskeletal pain. But the feedback we get from our clients is what really tells us that it works. Our patients report relief from pain and increased range of motion as dry needle therapy helps unknot those hard to reach spots.
Are There Any Cons To Dry Needling?
Some patients report a little soreness at the treatment site and occasional local bleeding or mild bruising. But most negative effects are mild and clear up within a week or so, according to the JABFM study and our own experience. The most important thing when considering dry needling is to be sure your therapist is fully trained. This is key to avoiding injury and preventing or minimizing pain.
In some cases, dry needling is not covered by insurance while we wait for insurers to catch up with this valuable option. But for many patients, the pain relief is worth any out of pocket costs.