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Dry Needling Therapy: What Is It and Does It Work?

Closeup of shirtless man receiving dry needling therapy from doctor in clinic

To treat a serious musculoskeletal injury, such as sciatica, back pain, or shoulder pain, a doctor may recommend dry needle therapy (where allowed by state law). Other terms used to describe the procedure include trigger point dry needling and intramuscular manual therapy.

While the name may not sound very appealing, dry needling is a minimally invasive and safe technique performed by trained physical therapists.

During the procedure, a thin monofilament needle penetrates the skin to get at muscular trigger points not easily reached by manual stimulation. Stimulating these trigger points helps manage and reduce neuromusculoskeletal pain and impaired movements.

What Is a Trigger Point?

A trigger point is a location where the muscle fiber has contracted into a tight band. This tension can disrupt limb function, restrict the range of motion, and cause pain or tenderness.

Applying dry needle therapy to a trigger point or dysfunctional muscle can decrease tightness, increase blood flow, and reduce pain.

Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture

Dry needling and acupuncture sound very similar, so what’s the difference? Well, while the two treatments use similar tools, they are not the same.

Dry needling is rooted in science-based understandings of the body, while acupuncture is based on ancient traditions involving energy flow. Modern dry needle therapy relies on research, evaluation of pain patterns, movement issues, and orthopedic tests.

The “dry” in dry needle therapy means there is no medicine or liquid in or on the needle. A hypodermic needle used to give an injection is called a “wet” needle and is much larger than a dry needle.

What Is the Purpose of Dry Needling?

Dry needling can be used to treat a wide range of musculoskeletal issues, including neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain, and hip pain. The goal is to treat the irritated or damaged muscle tissue by reducing pain, deactivating trigger points, and restoring function.

Dry needling is not a standalone treatment. It should be used as part of a broader approach that incorporates other physical therapy interventions, such as exercise, massage, and heat therapy.

Dry needle treatment may be used to treat:

  • Chronic pain
  • Disc problems
  • Joint problems
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Pelvic pain
  • Repetitive motion disorders
  • Sciatica
  • Spinal problems
  • Tendinitis
  • Whiplash

Dry Needling Techniques

Typically, a practitioner places the filiform needles in the knotted or hard areas of muscle that are causing pain. The needles remain in the skin for a short time, the length of which depends on the practitioner.

Sometimes they may use techniques called pistoning or sparrow pecking. Both techniques rely on a quick in-and-out insertion method. The idea is to stimulate blood flow to the region and break up any adhesions or scarring.

Another dry needle technique is non-trigger point treatment. Instead of only inserting needles directly into the areas of pain, the therapist may insert needles around the pain point. The idea is that pain is part of a larger area involving the surrounding muscular and nervous tissues. The needles are manually turned every so often or connect to a small machine that provides electrical stimulation.

Does Dry Needling Hurt?

During the procedure, the physical therapist will insert a thin, sterile needle into the skin to relax the muscular trigger points. The needles vary in length depending on which area of the body is targeted.

Most patients report very little to no pain when the needles are inserted. Some report muscle twitching, pinches, or aches while the needles are in place.

The entire process can take as little as 15 minutes. Needles are typically used once per muscle then thrown away. Afterward, patients may experience pain relief that lasts from a few hours to a few weeks.

Benefits and Risks

The pros and cons of dry needling are pretty straightforward. On the positive side, research indicates that dry needling is a safe and effective therapy for treating and managing pain. Using dry needles to release or deactivate trigger points helps:

  • Relieve pain and stiffness
  • Reduce muscle tension
  • Improve range of motion and flexibility
  • Increase nerve impulses to muscles

On the negative side, a few patients may experience mild side effects such as bruising, bleeding, and temporary soreness around the insertion site. The therapy is not recommended for those who are pregnant, patients with bleeding disorders, and people who are afraid of needles.

There is also the issue that some insurance companies may refuse to reimburse patients for the procedure. This is because dry needling is often practiced by physical and sports injury therapists, and there is little oversight regarding training and licensing for the procedure.

Since there is no credentialing board, it is recommended to find a practitioner who has postgraduate healthcare education, such as a physical therapist.

Is Dry Needling Right for You?

When we’re helping clients who have been injured because of a car crash or while at work, we make sure they receive the best care possible. If the doctor they are treating with suggests that dry needling provided by a physical therapist might help relieve their pain, we support their decision.

With our firm, you don’t worry about the insurance company dismissing your treatment or medical bills. Our Atlanta personal injury lawyers can stand toe-to-toe with the insurance adjusters and lawyers.

If you have been injured in an accident, are in pain, and aren’t sure where to turn, contact Gary Martin Hays & Associates for a free review of your case.

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