How Dry Needling Helps Relieve Pain

Dry needling has been gaining popularity and consumers of healthcare are becoming more curious about this relatively new treatment.

dry-needling-01It involves using a thin mono-filament needle to penetrate the skin and stimulate underlying myofascial trigger points, muscular and connective tissues. It is termed “dry needling” because it is a solid filament needle that does not inject anything into the body. Dry needling can be performed by a physical therapist who has pursued additional training in the technique.  It was originally added to the physical therapy scope of practice in 2009, it is supported by the American Physical Therapy Association, and it is cited in the APTA Board of Directors policy guidelines as a therapeutic intervention provided by physical therapists.  It is also listed as a valid manual therapy technique in the Guide to PT Practice 3.0.

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Dry needling is rarely used by physical therapists as a treatment by itself; it is often used as part of a patient’s overall manual therapy treatment plan.  Other treatments such as soft tissue work, deep tissue work, joint mobilizations, stretching techniques, strengthening exercises, and taping help compliment the effects of dry needling.  Dry needling does not replace other manual physical therapy techniques. One of the many effects of dry needling is that it may release tight muscle bands associated with trigger points and lead to decreased pain and improved function.  Other research suggests that dry needling can produce changes within the brain and spinal cord that provides pain relief by releasing the body’s natural opioids.

Many people want to know the difference between dry needling and acupuncture.  Dry needling by physical therapists is based on western neuroanatomy and modern scientific study of the musculoskeletal and nervous system. Physical therapists who perform dry needling do not use traditional acupuncture theories or acupuncture terminology.  A person who goes to an acupuncturist for treatment will have a very different experience compared to getting dry needling done by a physical therapist.  I am a firm believer in acupuncture for many conditions and I continue to recommend acupuncture to some of my patients when I have the opportunity.

Related: Why Sciatica is a Pain in the Butt

Many people want to know if dry needling is painful; in some cases, it can be. It depends on the type and location of tissue I am treating.  Often, people report feeling the sting of the needle as it inserts and then an aching feeling.  Very few people require the needles to be removed, as the pain of the needle typically subsides quickly.  If I am working on an elbow I may only use one needle at a time but often times when treating the neck or low back I place up to 12 needles at once that are left in place for 20-30 minutes.

I trained in dry needling through the American Academy of Manipulative Therapy, and have been slowly integrating it into my treatment plans.  I have had great results; adding it to my treatment of headaches, neck and back pain, tennis elbow, hip pain, and shoulder injuries.  I became a true believer during the certification class when I volunteered to be a subject for hip dry needling.  I had been battling a left gluteal muscle pain with running.  I was ramping up my distances training for an upcoming 10K and did not want to be hampered by this nagging, sharp pain on the side of my hip.  My partner in class placed needles into the muscles that attach to my hip while being advised by the instructor.  They stayed in place for 10 minutes and then were removed.  I have not had any pain since that one treatment and I was able to run in my 10K race.  I have many patients who have experienced results with dry needling.  Here are a few testimonials.

TG: “Dry needling changed my life! I had been coming to PT for quite a while and making slow progress. By having the dry needling it took my chronic pain in my hip away and gave me my life back.  It has allowed me to move forward with therapy and actually feel progress.”

JD:  “I had seen 5 other therapists and tried other treatment techniques for a chronic shoulder pain that affected me while running and it wasn’t until Mike tried dry needling to my shoulder that I had results.” 

Related: Top Reasons for Shoulder Pain

If you have more questions about how dry needling can help you please feel free to contact me at [email protected] and take advantage of a free pain consultation over at our Portland clinic.


By Michael Moras, DPT

Back in Motion Physical Therapy – Portland, Maine

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