What is Dry Needling?
Dry needling, or intramuscular stimulation, is a technique used by chiropractors and physical therapists to reduce pain, loosen tight muscles and improve range of movement. It’s called ‘dry’ as it doesn’t involve injecting fluid into the body. Just like acupuncture therapy, dry needling involves inserting thin, thread-like needles into the body for a therapeutic effect. The technique is often used by sports injury therapists and qualified chiropractors. Dry needling is rarely used on its own and is often used as a part of a larger musculoskeletal treatment plan.
If you’re thinking about getting dry needling treatment, it’s important that you’re aware of what we currently know about the procedure.
Dry needling vs. acupuncture
Although dry needling and acupuncture have similarities, the basic concepts behind these two procedures are quite different.
Acupuncture is an alternative medical practice that falls under the category of traditional Chinese medicine. It’s a procedure that has been used for hundreds of years and it is based on the belief that the human body houses a meridian system. The meridian system is the pathway through which the life-energy ‘qi’ flows. Acupuncture therapy is said to treat the pains and illnesses of the human body by stimulating particular points along this pathway via steel needles. These points are called acupuncture points.
Dry needling, on the other hand, is a practice that is mainly based on western medical principles. Instead of using steel needles on acupuncture points, dry needling aims to treat the body’s myofascial trigger points. These trigger points are hyperirritable spots on the muscle that, when activated, can cause symptoms such as pain, stiffness and tenderness. By ‘deactivating’ these trigger points with a thin needle, the patient may be able to experience reduced symptoms. Some dry needling techniques also aim to treat areas around the trigger point as opposed to the point itself.
Dry needling techniques
Physical therapists and chiropractors use a variety of different dry needling techniques. There are methods that use electrical stimulation and even periosteal pecking which involves contacting the bone directly. To keep things simple, however, we’re only going to discuss the three main dry needling techniques.
- Trigger point
This method involves inserting a thin needle into the trigger point in order to loosen and release tight muscle bands that cause pain and stiffness. Since trigger points refer to pain in other areas, the trigger point method can offer relief in larger areas of the body like the neck, the lower back and the jaw.
In superficial dry needling, the needle is only inserted in the outer layer of the skin. This method may affect the sensorimotor system (which helps maintain joint stability) and may alleviate pain symptoms as well. The advantage of superficial dry needling is that it completely avoids the muscles and the bones. This significantly reduces the chances of injury during the procedure.
Deep dry needling is an invasive method that targets the muscle directly. Since it’s a method that can cause serious injury if not done correctly, it is usually only conducted by highly skilled health professionals. If done properly, it may reduce pain or muscle tightness.
Since dry needling is a relatively new technique, there are still a lot of studies that need to be done on its efficacy. According to a meta-analysis from the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, there is evidence that dry needling may be effective in reducing pain and increasing pain thresholds.
However, when it comes to the functional outcomes (i.e., regarding the performance of daily activities), there is no significant difference between dry needling and other forms of physical therapy.
It’s important that you meet with qualified chiropractors and other health professionals before undergoing any kind of dry needling procedure. Since studies on the practice are limited, it’s always best to proceed with caution.
If you have any other questions or concerns, please consult a licensed health professional. This blog’s purpose is to give you general information on dry needling so that you have a foundational understanding of the treatment. This should not be treated as medical advice.