Dry needling is not acupuncture, a practice based on traditional Chinese medicine and performed by acupuncturists. Dry needling is a part of modern Western medicine principles and supported by research
What is dry needling?
Dry needling is also called trigger point dry needling or myofascial trigger point dry needling. It is done by acupuncturists, some chiropractors, medical doctors, and some physical therapists (PTs) to treat myofascial pain. The word “myofascial” is made up of the roots “myo” (which refers to muscle) and “fascia” (which refers to the tissue that connects muscle).
Muscles sometimes develop knotted areas called trigger points. These trigger points are highly sensitive and can be painful when touched. They are also often the cause of referred pain (or pain that affects another part of the body). Clinicians push thin solid needles through the skin into trigger points. The needles are used to stimulate the tissue, not to inject the medication.
Pain affects how your body moves. It is thought that dry needling changes the way the brain and muscles talk to each other to let the system return to a more normal movement pattern.
A patient may experience different sensations when being needled, muscle soreness, aching and a muscle twitch when a needle is inserted is considered to be a good sign. The needles may be placed deeply or superficially, for shorter or longer periods of time, depending on what type of pain is being treated and how long it has lasted. Shorter periods of time would mean that needle would stay in the muscle for seconds, while longer periods could mean 10 to 15 minutes.
What is a Trigger Point?
A trigger point is a taut band of skeletal muscle located within a larger muscle group. Trigger points can be tender to the touch, and touching a trigger point may cause pain to other parts of the body.
What Kind of Needles Are Used?
Dry needling involves a thin filiform needle that penetrates the skin and stimulates underlying myofascial trigger points and muscular and connective tissues. The needle allows a physical therapist to target tissues that are not manually palpable.
Physical therapists wear gloves and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when dry needling, consistent with Standard Precautions, Guide to Infection Prevention for Outpatient Settings, and OSHA standards. The sterile needles are disposed of in a medical sharps collector.
Why Dry Needling?
In cases when physical therapists use dry needling, it is typically 1 technique that’s part of a larger treatment plan.
Physical therapists use dry needling to release or inactivate trigger points to relieve pain or improve range of motion. Preliminary research supports that dry needling improves pain control, reduces muscle tension, and normalizes dysfunctions of the motor end plates, the sites at which nerve impulses are transmitted to muscles. This can help speed up the patient’s return to active rehabilitation.
What kinds of pain does dry needling treat?
Dry needling is almost always used as a part of an overall plan that will likely include some type of exercise, manual therapy, heat therapy, and education. Dry needling is used to increase range of motion that may be limited due to muscle tightness or scar tissue. Dry needling may also treat:
- Joint problems
- Disk problems
- Migraine and tension-type headaches
- Jaw and mouth problems (such as temporomandibular joint disorders or TMD)
- Repetitive motion disorders (like carpal tunnel syndrome)
- Spinal problems
- Pelvic pain
- Night cramps
- Phantom pain
- Post-herpetic neuralgia (pain left behind by shingles)