Health / Expert Advice

Dry Needling 101: What Is It and What Does It Treat?

Learn how the modern treatment can relieve muscle pain and tension.

Dry needling is becoming increasingly popular—and with good reason. Yes, its name may scare some people away, but its multiple benefits outweigh the alarming name.

Read on to learn more about it, how it can help you, and what to do if you’re afraid of needles.

What is dry needling?

Dry needling “typically involves an invasive procedure in which an acupuncture needle is inserted into the skin and muscle,” says Jason Trinh, director and head physiotherapist at FXNL Rehab.

The practitioner uses a thin filiform needle to penetrate the skin and stimulate a trigger point in your body.

The overactive muscle should respond with a twitch (a healthy muscle will not have the same twitch reaction). This will relax the trigger point muscle fibers and release tension, pain, pressure, and/or inflammation.

Is dry needling the same as acupuncture?

Trinh explains, “Both dry needling and acupuncture involve the insertion of thin needles into certain parts of the body, based on clinical reasoning, but the similarities end there.”

Acupuncture is founded on the traditional Chinese medicine belief “that our health is determined by a balanced flow of ‘chi’.

[Chi] is the vital life energy present in all living organisms. According to acupuncture theory, chi circulates in the body along 12 major pathways, known as meridians.”

People may turn to acupuncture when there are such blockages or imbalances in our state of ‘chi’.

“Acupuncture is using acupuncture needles and inserting them into meridian points of the body to unblock the flow of chi in the body,” says Principal Chiropractor and Director at Adjusting to Health Tam Nguyen. This should restore the mind and body to its optimal state of function.

In comparison, he describes dry needling as a modern treatment that “uses acupuncture needles and insert[s] them into [the] trigger points of a muscle.”

What are the benefits of dry needling?

More people are turning towards this practice because there are multiple benefits. It is used to “reduce pain, decrease muscle spasm [and/or] tension, activate muscles, improve muscle contraction, [and to] relax tight muscles,” says Nguyen.

It’s a great way to loosen stiff and sore muscles while improving your range of movement. You will get better blood and oxygen circulation around the body.

It can also give you faster results than other treatment techniques. Trinh explains that you can achieve, “the result you want very quickly in certain areas that your hands can only have limited access to…the needle can penetrate through the muscle to achieve a twitch response whereas our hands are limited by multiple layers of tissue.”

Is it safe?

Understandably, it can be daunting to thinking about the physicality of dry needling. Just the word “needle” can scare people away; but, in reality, it is generally quite safe.

Trinh explains, “If the therapist has been trained to perform dry needling under an approved governing body and has received the certification and licensing to do so, then you can safely assume that they would have satisfied the minimum requirements to be able to practice dry needling techniques.”

However, there are certain factors to take into consideration. Let your practitioner know about your medical history, condition, personal pain threshold, and past experiences with needles.

This way, he or she can evaluate the risks, specific to your case.

Will dry needling hurt?

As the muscle reacts to the needle, you may feel a little pain or discomfort. Trinh also describes a potential “electrical shock-type feeling” when it hits the trigger point.

He recommends an open dialogue with your practitioner so that you always feel comfortable and safe during the procedure.

Nguyen adds, “The patient should also have full confidence in the therapist performing this technique, as well. It is important for the patient to be completely relaxed throughout the process, because if the patient tenses up, [that’s when] the procedure can be quite painful.”

Just remember, if you feel okay moving forward, then keep going. If not, then that’s okay too—you can stop at any time.

Your practitioner or therapist will not perform this treatment without your consent.

Is dry needling right for me?

It’s for you if you want to speed up the muscle recovery process. “Dry needling may [also] be beneficial for those suffering from acute or chronic pain and/or having movement impairments,” says Trinh.

“I would highly recommend it for those already attending physio, but only if your fear of needles [doesn’t] cause you to faint or pass out.”

How often do I need dry needling?

The answer to this varies depending on your condition. Your practitioner should be able to advise you on your specific case.

If you are still feeling sore from previous sessions though, then it is best to wait until these effects have subsided for your next one.

Can dry needling replace other treatment types?

Don’t use this as a standalone therapy tool. In Trinh’s opinion, it should part of a larger treatment plan.

Nguyen also agrees; he prefers to use dry needling “in conjunction with physio massages when treatment has reached a plateau in therapeutic effects.”

So, don’t ignore other treatments, even with all its benefits. When you apply multiple techniques, this is when you can really get the best out of your therapy sessions.

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