What is Dry Needling?
Dry needling a technique that physical therapists use to treat pain and movement impairments. The treatment calls for a “dry needle” -- one that doesn’t use injections or medications -- to be poked through the skin and into the muscles and connective tissue.
Dry needling is also sometimes called “trigger point therapy” and “intramuscular manual therapy.”
Is Dry Needling Different than Acupuncture?
Acupuncture and dry needling are surprisingly similar, so it can be easy to confuse them. Acupuncture is based in ancient Chinese medicinal practices. It uses needles to stimulate points on the body, just like dry needling, and can alleviate pain or treat other medical conditions.
However, acupuncture is rooted in Qiqong, the Chinese art of energy manipulation. Acupuncture practitioners use their needles to stimulate “energy points” throughout the body, helping this energy flow through highways called “meridians.” It is believed that helping the body’s energy flow can help certain health conditions.
Dry needling also stimulates points on the body with needles, but it eschews all talk of energy healing. Instead, it’s backed up by legitimate science.
Dry needling focuses on bodily areas stressed, tightened, or cramped because of neuromusculoskeletal pain. It helps reduce physical pain, helps relax and ease muscles, and helps the places in the body where nerve impulses are transmitted to muscular areas.
Not only can this treatment aid with pain management, but it can speed up recovery during injury rehabilitation too.
What Does Dry Needling Treat?
Dry needling can help with all sorts of things, but it mainly focuses on neuromusculoskeletal pain and related injury relief. Your brain sends nerve impulses through your body and to your muscles through a complex electro-chemical network called the nervous system.
You can think of your nervous system like the wires in your house. Sometimes, your nerve impulses (or, your electrical currents) get tangled or confused.
This often happens with injury but can also be a result of regular daily life. This malfunction of nerve impulses can cause pain and discomfort, sometimes even forcing muscular areas around the malfunctioning nerves to tighten and stress.
Luckily, dry needling can work to ease these problems. Sometimes, your muscles or your motor end plates (where nerve signals pop into the muscles) just need a little poke.
Dry needling offers a kind of jumpstart to malfunctioning areas of the body that can alleviate pain symptoms and get your body back to working order again. Obviously, there are some conditions that can’t be totally healed by dry needling, but patients can almost always expect some sort of pain relief (even if it’s only temporary).
Here’s brief list of the things dry needling can help treat:
- Neck, Back, and Shoulder Pain
- Tennis Elbow
- Knee Pain
- Hip and Posterior Pain
- Achilles Tendonitis/Tendonosis
- Plantar Fasciitis
- Fibromyalgia-related pain
Perhaps dry needling's biggest benefit is the cost (which we’ll get into later). It’s substantially cheaper than traditional, pharmaceutical medication. It also doesn’t have the same kind of side-effects as pills, tablets, or other over-the-counter/prescription pain medications.
There’s no risk of secondary symptoms because of dry needling, which is a big reason why so many people choose to do it over getting prescriptions. However, this also means that dry needling isn’t necessarily as good a pain reliever as, say, opioid-based medications.
It also means there’s no risk of addiction. You can also guarantee that the person providing your dry needling treatment will be an experienced and trained medical professional. There are no actual standards for dry needling therapy (more on that below), but those that practice it are always licensed professionals.
Another major benefit to dry needling is its athletic applications. Dry needling has been proven to increase range of motion and decrease muscular stress/tightness, which is wonderful news for professional athletes regularly suffering from sport-related injuries.
It’s a pretty common treatment among professionals in tennis, soccer, and even baseball. But this benefit isn’t limited only to professional-level athletes. Those of us just trying to stay in shape can also benefit.
Dry needling can help if you slept on your neck wrong, if you have whiplash from a car accident, or if you picked up your brand-new TV just a little too fast. It really can treat a wide array of pain! Treatment might not even be local to affected areas.
In some cases, dry needling therapy might focus on a more general area of the body, working to alleviate tension and pain spread across that area rather than just poking the painful area full of holes.
That means that you can try dry needling therapy even if you don’t have a specific, localized pain. The dry needling treatment can work just as well for people experiencing a general level of discomfort, which is great for people with chronic pain (such as the elderly).
There are certainly risks to dry needling, just as there are with any medical treatment. It’s important to consult your primary care provider, physical therapist, or anyone else on your medical care team before you add any new treatment into your medical treatment plan.
All that said, the risks associated with dry needling are relatively low. Treatment could cause some mild to moderate bruising in the treated area, as well as bleeding. Your skin is being poked with a needle, after all, so a bit of that is to be expected.
The treatment has also been known to cause some mild soreness, as your muscles tense and relax with the needling. This has been known to reduce through continued treatments as your body gets used to the feeling. Needles are used during treatment, which means a foreign object is entering your body.
Any time that’s the case, sterile tools and conditions are a major issue. Your dry needling specialist should always be using sterile needles in a clean environment and with gloves. If you see anything that makes you uncomfortable during treatment, say something.
Average Cost Expect to pay anywhere between $25 to $100 for an hour-long dry needling session. (These prices are an approximation of sessions in the United States and do not consider foreign countries.) The price for an appointment might be added onto this figure. Sometimes, you get what you pay for.
Be sure to do thorough research on any dry needling specialist and don’t just take the cheapest deal. You don’t want to do a session that might do more harm than good!
Who Can Perform Dry Needling
Physical therapists, in general, are the people dishing out dry needling sessions. It should be noted here that no formal training or education is required for dry needling specifically, although a trained physical therapist does have to undergo extensive medical education to earn their degree and license for practice.
They also need to undergo strict re-licensing procedures and inspections to ensure they should be licensed. This is different than acupuncturists, who do need to obtain a specific license because of strict laws and prohibitions in the United States.
Many States don’t allow dry needling at all but may allow acupuncture, whereas some States allow both or neither. This situation is constantly in flux and, rather than writing down a list that could be out-of-date by the time you read it, we suggest you do your own research regarding where you live.
What to Expect During a Session
A consultation will almost always be performed by the specialist before you actually begin your dry needling. Sometimes, this consultation can take one whole appointment, as the specialist needs to understand your pain and its origin. It’s important to be as thorough with your specialist as possible to ensure they have all the information they need.
During the actual session, you can expect to be lying on a table or sitting in a chair. The area being treated will most likely have to be bare. You will not be given any pain medication for the treatment (it can sometimes cause more bleeding) and you will remain conscious.
The physical therapist will stick your body in predetermined areas with one or more needles. The site being poked might tense up for a second or two, which can be painful, but it will ease. The session will probably last no longer than an hour and you can be out the door, safe to drive, as soon as you’re done.
What to Expect After A Session
As stated before, bruising is common. So is soreness. It’s possible to feel any number of emotions after treatment, including: fatigued, emotional, giggly, or spaced out. Keep in check with your emotions and, if you feel too tired, do not drive. Drink plenty of water, use ice, and try light self-massage to help soreness.
And that’s all there is to it! Like we said before, always consult your medical team before making any decisions on treatment. Your doctor is always your best resource! Never rush into anything and do all your research to ensure you’re doing what’s best for you.
If you’ve never tried dry needling and it will be safe for you, you should consider giving it a shot. You never know! Thanks for reading!