What is Dry Needling?

What is dry needling?

Micah Swift, DPT, Outpatient Physical Therapy, St. Agnes Hospital

Dry needling is a technique performed by a physical therapist with advanced training. While it can be used for a variety of reasons, it is primarily used to relieve muscle tension and pain in the form of a trigger point or what is more commonly called a knot.

A trigger point, or knot, is a small section of hypersensitive muscle that is often banded and very tender to pressure. These can cause local pain, referred pain, or both. They can also impact movement by making particular movements or joints feel stiff or painful.

Where did dry needling come from?

Dry needling came from wet needling, which started sometime in the 1940s. Drs. Travell and Simons were injecting different substances, corticosteroids, analgesics, saline, etc. into trigger points to determine their benefit. In 1979 a Czech physician, Dr. Karl Lewitt, determined that the “needling effect” is distinct from the substance injected, shortly thereafter dry needling began being widely used.

Is dry needling the same as acupuncture?

Dry needling is different from acupuncture in that dry needling is used to relieve a trigger point and restriction in the neuromuscular system, while acupuncture seeks to manipulate the flow of “energy” along “meridians” in the body. They are only similar in the tool they use. Much the same as when an astronaut and accountant both use calculators. They are certainly not the same thing.

How does a dry needling session go?

After the skin is cleaned a sterile filliform needle, that is thinner than most sewing needles, and coated with a biolubricant for comfort, is placed into the trigger point and nearby areas depending on your tolerance and presentation. Electrical stimulation might also be used to help increase comfort, or help with the muscle reset. The actual process is a relatively quick with most sessions taking five to 10 minutes, often additional treatments are used such as stretching or manual therapy to help reduce soreness.

While the most common side effect is soreness, we often describe this as similar to what you might feel after a rigorous massage.  Drinking water, gentle activity and heat can be used to help rebound from the soreness of needling.

The positive effects of dry needling are often seen within the first few minutes to hours but sometimes can take one to two days, also one to two trials of needling may be needed before change is seen. If no changes are noted in the first couple of trials dry needling may not be for you. While it is not an answer for everyone, it can be very helpful and sometimes a quick release of pain and tension.

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