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What is Dry Needling & Can It Relieve My Pain?

What is Dry Needling & Can It Relieve My Pain?

What is Dry Needling & Can It Relieve My Pain?

Key Takeaways

  • Dry needling treatment is used to relieve pain and movement impairments.
  • Dry needling and acupuncture both use needles but they are very different practices.
  • Dry needling can treat a variety of conditions in a variety of people.
  • Dry needling practioners may include physical therapists, occupational therapists, athletic trainers, and chiropractors, but licensing requirements vary by state.

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Have you heard of dry needling? It’s also sometimes referred to as trigger point dry needling or myofascial trigger point dry needling.

Dry needling is one medical treatment that might be recommended to treat pain.

Wondering if dry needling is right for you? Find out what conditions it’s recommended for, what makes it different than acupuncture, does it hurt, and more!

Person wearing a glove holding a dry needling needle, seen up close

The Basics of Dry Needling

What You Should Know Before Getting Dry Needling

The Basics of Dry Needling

Person laying down on stomach with practioner applying needles to their back to relieve pain

What is dry needling?

Dry needling is a treatment that is used to relieve neuromuscular pain and movement impairments. It is done by inserting thin filiform needles to penetrate the skin and stimulate myofascial trigger point relief. “Myofascial” refers to both the muscles and the tissue that connects them.

Myofascial: “myo” (which refers to muscle) + “fascia” (which refers to the tissue that connects muscle)

How does dry needling work?

Thin needles are placed either superficially or deeply into the trigger points. They are left in place for a few seconds or even 10-15 minutes depending on what type of pain is being treated. These needles do not inject anything, including any medication. They are used only to stimulate the muscle tissue to help relieve trigger points, knots in the muscle that are very sensitive and may be painful when touched. It may also be used to help increase range of motion that is limited by scar tissue or muscle tightness.

What conditions or types of pain might be treated with dry needling?

Dry needling can be used to treat a variety of conditions including:1

  • Tendonitis
  • Tension-type headaches
  • Migraines
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion disorders
  • Phantom pain
  • Nocturnal cramps
  • Computer-related disorders
  • Complex regional pain syndrome
  • Post-herpetic neuralgia (pain left by shingles)
  • Joint dysfunction
  • Disk pathology
  • Radiculopathies
  • Jaw and mouth problems (like temporomandibular joint disorders)
  • Craniomandibular dysfunction
  • Whiplash associated disorders
  • Spinal dysfunction
  • Pelvic pain and other urologic syndromes
  • Limited range of motion
  • And other less common diagnoses

Does dry needling really work? What are the benefits?

The primary benefit of dry needling is its ability to help relieve and manage your pain. It is often used alongside other treatment modalities to help reduce your pain.

Many physical therapists have seen the benefits of dry needling in their patients, according to an article from PT in Motion.2

One patient had a myofascial disorder that left her in chronic pain. But dry needling combined with movement-based therapy helped relieve her pain and led to an 80% gain in her walking gait fluidity.

Another patient had myofascial pain so intense he could barely walk two blocks. But dry needling plus exercise and conditioning led to him being pain free and able to play sports and play with his children.

Dry needling isn’t a “magic cure” for pain. But when used alongside other treatments, it can help relieve pain for some people.

Who can receive dry needling treatments?

Many people with trigger point pain conditions can receive dry needling treatments. But it’s best to check with your doctor before beginning any new treatments.

Dry needling is not recommended for the following:

  • People with a needle aversion/phobia
  • Children younger than 12
  • Women who are pregnant
  • People with local skin lesions, local or systemic infections, or local lymphedema are generally considered contraindicated
  • People who cannot understand the treatment or are not willing or able to give consent to the procedure
  • People who are allergic to certain metals may need specific needles to be used
  • People on blood thinners, those who have recently had surgery, and patients with other concerns should consult their doctor before considering dry needling

What’s the difference between dry needling vs. acupuncture?

Both dry needling and acupuncture use sterile needles that are inserted into the skin to stimulate points in the body. But while parts of dry needling are similar to acupuncture, they are quite different practices.

Dry Needling

Box of dry needling needles

  • Based on Western Medicine principles of anatomy
  • Used only to treat neuromusculoskeletal ailments, not weight management, depression, or other conditions that aren’t related to the neuromusculoskeletal system
  • Done to stimulate myofascial trigger points (sensitive points in the body) to treat muscle dysfunctions
  • Success is measured by tracking metrics like balance, coordination, range of motion, and strength

Acupuncture

Box of acupuncture needles

  • Based on Traditional Chinese Medical (TMC) concepts
  • Used to treat pain and illness including depression, fatigue, insomnia, and high blood pressure
  • Done to manipulate blocked or out of balance Qi (pronounced ‘chee’), a life force that is believed to flow throughout the body in meridian channels
  • Success is measured primarily on patient’s reporting of symptoms, like pain relief although some practitioners use other measures

What You Should Know Before Getting Dry Needling

Photo of an alcohol swap packet next to a dry needling needle

Does dry needling hurt?

The actual needle insertion typically doesn’t hurt. The needle is much smaller in diameter than those used to give shot injections or to draw blood. Your muscle may twitch when the needle is inserted and you may feel muscle soreness for a few days afterwards (similar to if you overwork a muscle).

How many needles are inserted?

This depends on the individual and your location of pain. During the first session, fewer needles will be used. For conditions like chronic neck and shoulder pain, a dozen needles might be used. If you have questions, ask your doctor about their plan for your specific condition.

What are the side effects and risks of dry needling?

Minor side effects include:

  • Bruising
  • Soreness during or after treatment
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Bleeding at the site where the needle was inserted

One very rare risk when performing dry needling is the puncturing of a major organ, such as a pneumothorax (collapsed lung).

Who practices dry needling?

Many medical professionals can practice dry needling, but it depends on their state’s laws and whether they allow dry needling as part of the medical professionals’ plan of care. Most states require additional training or certification.

Professionals that may practice dry needling include:

  • Physical Therapists
    • As of 2019, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) says that 34 states + DC have affirmed that dry needling is with the PT scope of practice, 5 states have decided against it, and others haven’t decided
  • Occupational Therapists
    • As of 2017, the American Occupational Therapy Association’s (AOTA) says they don’t have sufficient evidence that dry needling is currently a part of OT practice so practitioners should review their individual state’s legislature to determine if they can practice dry needling
  • Athletic Trainers
    • The National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) says there is no professional-wide standard for AT’s dry needling competence and athletic trainers should ensure their state legislature allows dry needling as part of athletic training care and make sure they have fulfilled any educational/training requirements
  • Chiropractors
    • As of 2019, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) says that the majority of states approve of dry needling by chiropractors after additional training or certification, however it varies by state

Map of the United States that shows States Laws Governing Dry Needling Practice by Physical Therapists: 2019

Image Source: APTA

How do I find a professional who practices dry needling near me?

Ask your doctor for recommendations. Once you decide on a professional, you may want to see if they accept your insurance and ask about their license. Not all therapists can practice dry needling because license requirements vary from state to state.

Is dry needling covered by insurance?

Dry needling is sometimes covered by insurance. Coverage for needle insertion without injection is determined by individual carrier/payer. Dry needling is not covered by all insurance providers. Ask the practice you decide on if your insurance will cover their dry needling therapies.

What are other ways therapists may treat my pain?

Dry needling is often used alongside other interventions including stretching, exercise, and others. The APTA states that dry needling “is rarely a stand-alone procedure and should be part of a broader physical therapy approach”.

Some other treatments that might be used alongside dry needling to help treat your pain include:

What are other ways I can treat my pain?

For at-home pain relief, try these products!

  • Sammons Preston Cold Packs
    • These packs stay cold for up to 30 minutes for constant pain relief.
  • TheraBand Roller Massager+
    • Available in standard and portable versions, this massager lets you target your trigger points for pain relieving self-massage.
  • TheraBand Foot Roller
    • Use to relieve foot pain. This roller can be popped in the freezer for additional relief.
  • TheraBand CLX Resistance Bands
    • Exercise can help relieve some types of pain. These resistance bands are easy to use and easy to store. Talk with your doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen.
  • TheraPearl Hot & Cold Packs
    • These packs can be used for hot or cold therapy and come in different options for different body parts.
  • Biofreeze
    • This topical analgesic provides quick, cooling relief, thanks to its active ingredient, menthol.

References

1. APTA. (2020) Dry Needling. American Physical Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/38j1Q8E

2. APTA. (2015) Dry Needling: Getting to the Point. American Physical Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3BeijHM

3. Cleveland Clinic. (2018). Dry Needling. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://cle.clinic/3gxRSVp

4. Cornwell, Stacie. (2019). Does Dry Needling Hurt? Athletico Physical Therapy. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3kwmZlo

5. Carr, Christine. (2020). Pinpointing Your Muscle Pain: Is Dry Needling Right for You? UNC Health Talk. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3Dwpz3Q

6. AOTA. (2017). Practice Response: Dry Needling in Occupational Therapy Practice. American Occupational Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3mz3TxJ

7. NATA. (n.d.) Dry Needling in Athletic Training. National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3sRuyqX

8. Hamm, Anthony W. (2019). Billing for Dry Needling Services (Needle Insertion Without Injection). American Chiropractic Association. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2UUozFc

9. Callard, M. (n.d.). Get to the Point: Can Dry Needling Relieve Your Patient's Pain? Performance Health Academy. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3DlRnYx

10. APTA. (2019) Dry Needling. American Physical Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3zlq1zr


Medical Disclaimer: The information provided on this site, including text, graphics, images, and other material are for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.