What is Dry Needling?
Dry needling, also referred to as Trigger Point Dry Needling (TPDN), is a technique used in Physical Therapy to release tight muscles using a very thin, filiform needle. The technique is dubbed “dry” needling because unlike a medical syringe/needle, the dry needles don’t need to deliver medication, so they’re solid and much, much thinner. For comparison, a medical syringe has a diameter of 2.5mm, a hypodermic needle, like the one used to draw blood, has a diameter of 1.6mm, whereas a dry needle is typically 0.25-0.30mm in thickness.
Dry Needling vs Acupuncture
If this kind of needle sounds familiar, it's because solid, filiform needles are also used in acupuncture. But, while the tool is the same, the method of treatment is very different. Acupuncture follows principles of eastern medicine using an energetic map of the body (meridians) to guide treatment. Dry needling, on the other hand, is based on western medicine and uses knowledge of anatomy and physiology to target and release something called trigger points in dysfunctional muscles.
What Are Trigger Points?
Essentially trigger points are muscle knots/spasms. These tight bands of muscle tissue develop due to overuse, muscular imbalance, nerve impingement, or poor posture. Trigger points exhibit something called elevated “spontaneous electrical activity” which is a fancy way of saying part of the muscle is overactive and contracted even when it's not being used.
The practice of dry needling stems from medical research in which a hypodermic needle was used to inject anesthetic or corticosteroid into a trigger point to induce relaxation. Researchers noticed that the injection of the needle alone caused a reaction in the muscle, often eliciting a muscle twitch followed by relaxation AND that the above mentioned “spontaneous electrical activity” that is characteristic of a trigger point was also reduced from the presence of the needle alone without medication. Since there is a limitation to how often medication can be administered, the practice of dry needling began.
Expectations and Safety
The technique uses sterile needles, gloves, and the treatment area is prepared with alcohol, so there is minimal risk of infection. The needling itself is very quick. It feels different person to person and location to location, but often people say it feels like a deep pressure inside the muscle. Discomfort is sometimes reported while the needle is being placed, but once in location it usually can’t be felt. The primary risk of this procedure is causing a punctured lung when treating around the chest area. However, in the more than 30 years that STAR has been open, this has never happened. What IS more common after needling is muscle soreness or a small bruise that usually resolves within a day or two.
Needling is just one tool physical therapists have and it's not for everyone. It’s a great tool for reducing muscle pain and after that’s achieved PT can more effectively prescribe exercises to get you back to pre-injury levels of activity. If you think needling could help you and you’re interested in learning more, the PT’s at STAR are happy to tell you more about it!