Dry needling is a technique used by physical therapists that allow them to combat myofascial pain. This technique is “dry”, meaning that it doesn’t use any medication or injection. Instead, a very thin, sterile needle is inserted through the skin into areas of the muscle known as trigger points. Trigger points are areas in the skeletal muscle that can be sensitive and irritable to touch. Pressing on a trigger point can result in pain being felt not only at the trigger spot but in other part of the body. This is called “referred pain.”
There are many injuries and conditions that can result in trigger point formation, such as repetitive movements, poor posture and poor biomechanics. In the past, physical therapists would utilize different techniques to combat this issue, including manipulation or mobilization, in order to “reset” the muscle. Now, thanks to the research done on dry needling, we have learned that a well-placed needle can reset the muscle with less pain and less work than before. There are multiple conditions that can benefit from a session of dry needling, such as: headaches, neck and back pain, shoulder pain, plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, hip and knee pain, muscle strains, sports injuries, and repetitive strain injuries.
During the session, the thin needle is placed in the muscle which has the trigger point. The muscle responds to the needle with a localized twitch response, or a quick muscle contraction. This can feel like a muscle cramp, similar to a charlie horse, or discomfort in the "referred" part of the muscles, but this lasts only a few seconds and varies from patient to patient. Many learn to recognize and even welcome this sensation as it results in deactivating the trigger point, causing the positive benefits of dry needling.
If you think this sounds like acupuncture, you wouldn’t be alone. While the two may sound similar, the differences far outweigh the similarities. The practice of each differ in terms of historical, philosophical, and practical context. Acupuncture is a practice performed by an acupuncturist, and is based on traditional Chinese medical practices. The practice of dry needling, in contrast, is based on modern Western knowledge of neuroanatomy and the scientific study of musculoskeletal and nervous systems.
Many patients report soreness after their session, similar to receiving a professional deep tissue massage. Typically this soreness lasts somewhere between a few hours and two days, with occasional bruising. This soreness may be alleviated by applying ice to the area and performing specific stretches for the treated muscles, which your therapist will demonstrate after your session.
It is important to remember that dry needling is only one part of the treatment and may only offer temporary relief if not combined with other treatment focusing on stretching, strengthening and neuro-muscular re-education. After the treatment the effected muscle needs to be retrained to re-gain normal flexibility, strength and motor control. Your physical therapist will instruct you in a proper exercise program to achieve the best results.
Not all patients will qualify for dry needling, and proper screening will eliminate most of the risk and side effects. For patients who do qualify dry needling, it can be used as a minimally invasive, effective and easily available tool in reducing pain and restoring lost function. The number of times dry needling will need to be completed varies in each individual and the affected area. Typically, positive results are apparent between two to four sessions, with each session increasing flexibility and decreasing pain in the affected area. However, this depends on many factors including the cause and duration of the symptoms, as well as the overall health of the patient.
If you think you could benefit from dry needling, we invite you to call us at 703.433.2500 to schedule an appointment with one of the physical therapists here at Arthritis & Sports. To stay up-to-date on the latest news and tips from us, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter by clicking below.