Dry Needling Physical Therapy: Everything You Need To Know

By Team Movement For Life | October 30, 2018


Can Dry Needling Alleviate Your Muscle Pain?

Hard, knotted muscles, back strain, and herniated discs are extremely painful conditions. Finding adequate relief for these types of issues can be hard. If you’re experiencing the pain associated with trigger points and other muscle strain, you may have heard of the practice of dry needling. What is dry needling, and can it alleviate your muscle pain?Dry needling is the practice of inserting a ‘dry’ needle inside muscle tissues for intramuscular therapy purposes. The needle is not medicated, and the method is not a form of acupuncture. Dry needling is part of Western medicine and can be performed by a physical therapist who is licensed with the state. State laws govern the practice of dry needling.

What type of pain and muscular issues can be alleviated with dry needling?

Dry needling can alleviate pain associated with the following conditions:

  • Trigger points
  • Muscle tension and spasms
  • Arthritis
  • Nerve irritation
  • Ligament strains
  • Herniated discs

What is a trigger point?

A trigger point is a tight band of skeletal muscle that is located within a larger muscle group. A trigger point can be tender to the touch, and pressing on it can also cause pain to radiate to other parts of the body. Trigger points are hard to treat and eliminate, but dry needling is an effective method for dealing with trigger point pain.


How do trigger points form?

Trigger points occur when the muscle experiences injuries or overuse. Inflammation builds up in the damaged tissues. Once this happens, the muscle enters what’s called a protective tension state, or contracture to protect itself against further damage. Contracture then inhibits microcirculation, which subsequently deprives the tissues of oxygen-rich blood. Waste products can’t leave the site of the injury if no blood is effectively able to circulate. So, the injury site becomes oxygen deprived. The body then creates cells called fibroblasts that produce scar tissue. Scarring limits the tissue’s ability to fully function, and the muscle bands become short and taut. This irritates the nerves, causing pain.

When the pain from a trigger point persists or gets worse, then it is called Myofascial Pain Syndrome. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with the syndrome, and most diagnoses occur between the ages of 20 and 40. Risk factors include stress, anxiety, injury, sedentary jobs, poor posture, joint problems, and repetitive motion. Left untreated, chronic trigger points and myofascial pain syndrome can lead to sleep disorders and fibromyalgia.


How does dry needling treat trigger point pain?

A physical therapist will take a thin, unmedicated filiform needle to penetrate the skin, deep into the muscle tissue. The needle will stimulate the underlying myofascial trigger point and the surrounding areas. That tight band of oxygen-deprived scar tissue, when a needle is inserted into it, will produce what’s called a twitch reflex. The twitch reflex decreases muscle contraction, reduces irritation and pain, and also improves flexibility. A lesion will form from the needle which cuts through 15,000 muscle fibers.


The body thinks the needle is a foreign invader, and it activates the immune system. Cut muscle fibers then produce an inflammatory reaction that helps to reduce inflammation all through the body, not just at the site of the penetrated trigger point.


Trigger points are incredibly difficult to manipulate and treat manually. A physical therapist can trigger and target tissues that they otherwise could not stimulate manually when they use dry needling.

Dry needling is also relatively painless, but during the local twitch response, you may feel a slight cramping or aching sensation. This is brief and indicates that the method is working to stimulate the muscle fibers and produce an immune system response.




Does Dry Needling hurt?

There can be slight discomfort when the needle goes into the skin. However, the discomfort is temporary and is anything you feel like a twitch response.


What happens after dry needling treatment?

Your physical therapist will look for improvements after the first session, including increased range of motion, and decreased feelings of pain or tightness. You may feel sore or experience bruising after dry needling therapy, but you can apply ice and heat to these areas to alleviate any discomfort.

If you’re experiencing the pain and decreased range of motion from trigger points and other muscular strain, dry needling from a licensed physical therapist can bring you much-needed relief.