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Dry Needling: How a Little Needle Can Provide Big Relief

By Joshua Bruner, Physical Therapist

Have you ever had a tight muscle that will never relax no matter how much you massage it? What about a chronic muscle strain that never seems to heal? If so, dry needling may be the treatment for you. Dry needling is becoming a popular form of treatment shown to provide significant benefits to people with all types of injuries.

 What is dry needling?

Dry needling is a form of medical treatment that uses a sterile needle to penetrate the skin to stimulate trigger points in the muscle. Trigger points are often referred to as “knots” in the muscle. These trigger points can produce or refer pain to other areas of the body. For example, the upper trapezius muscle (located in your neck/shoulder area) has been known to refer pain into the head and cause headaches. The needle allows the physical therapist to treat deep into the tissue that is often difficult to reach with massage.

 Why dry needling?

Dry needling is a safe procedure that a physical therapist uses to assist their treatment of soft tissue injuries, neurological conditions, and chronic pain. The goal of dry needling is to relieve muscular pain and stiffness in order to improve flexibility and increase range of motion. A decrease in pain and improved range of motion can allow people to perform tasks that were previously painful. Therefore, dry needling is usually used in combination with other forms of physical therapy treatments to allow one to resume normal activities with decreased pain.

 What conditions does dry needling treat?

Dry needling can be used to treat a variety of muscle injuries and strains throughout the body. Even though it is primarily used to treat muscle injuries, dry needling can also be used for a variety of other conditions such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle spasticity
  • Nerve injuries
  • Tennis/golfer’s elbow
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Sciatica
  • Headaches
  • Shoulder, hip, and knee pain
  • Neck and back pain

Side effects

Serious side effects from dry needling are very rare when performed under a properly trained physical therapist. Mild side effects such as bruising, bleeding, and temporary soreness may be common after a treatment. These side effects usually resolve very quickly and are not generally a concern. Although possible, the risk of infections and blood-borne illnesses are not common due to the therapist using a sterile needle. Dry needling is a relatively safe treatment when performed by a trained provider. The therapist will review all side effects with the patient prior to using dry needling.

 Is dry needling painful?

In most cases, dry needling should not be painful. The insertion of the needle is rarely felt if applied properly. A brief pain sensation that’s often described as an ache or cramp may occur from a local “twitch” of the muscle. The sensation is perfectly normal and actually a desirable outcome. A dull ache or muscle soreness after the treatment is possible and should resolve within the next 24 to 48 hours. Severe or sharp pains should not be expected with dry needling.

 Dry needling vs. acupuncture

Although dry needling uses a similar needle as acupuncture, the treatments are not the same. Acupuncture uses different locations, depths, and rationales when compared to dry needling. Only a small percentage of acupuncturists treat trigger points. Dry needling is also used with other forms of treatment such as soft tissue and joint mobilizations, corrective exercises, and movement re-education. Acupuncture is commonly referred to as a technique for balancing the “flow of energy or life force”, known as Qi or Chi, which is believed to flow through meridians pathways in the body. Dry needling does not follow this rationale, but rather uses the needles to relax muscles similar to a massage.

 Is dry needling for me?

Dry needling may be appropriate for you if you are experiencing any of the conditions listed above. Dry needling is safe for most disorders, but should not be used for anyone with the following conditions: active infection, post-operative lymphectomy, and less than three months post-surgical. Anyone with a compromised immune system, vascular disease, who is currently pregnant, and/or takes blood thinners should consult with their physician or physical therapist prior to receiving dry needling. If you have a fear of needles, dry needling may not be the best choice of treatment for you.

 How to set up an appointment

If you are interested in drying needling or feel like it may be a treatment that could benefit you, contact the Rehabilitation Department at The Orthopedic Institute at Southwest Health or your primary physician. A referral from your physician to physical therapy will be required before an appointment can be scheduled. Your treating therapist will assess your condition and determine if dry needling is the most appropriate treatment for you. For further questions or additional information, contact The Orthopedic Institute and Physical Therapy Rehab Department at 608.342.4748.

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