What Is Dry Needling?
Dry needling is a type of treatment for musculoskeletal pain. It treats myofascial pain, which is pain that starts in the muscles or fascia, the tissues that separate muscle layers. During the treatment, a healthcare provider (commonly a physical therapist) passes a very small needle in and out of painful areas for about 30 seconds at a time.
Dry needling is different from “wet” needling, where a provider injects a medication — like saline, numbing medication, or steroids — in the painful areas.
Here, we’ll discuss how dry needling works, when it might be useful, and how effective it is.
How does dry needling work?
In areas of injury, nerve damage, arthritis, or repeated motion, people sometimes develop painful knots, or myofascial “trigger points.” Trigger points (TPs) are areas of tightness, spasm, and pain within the muscle. Usually muscles contract and relax as we use them. But with TPs, experts believe certain chemicals release (at the time of injury or overuse) to prevent the injured muscles from relaxing. This creates areas of spasm as well as local neuropathy.
TPs sometimes respond to traditional treatments — like stretching, massage, and heat. But if these treatments don’t work, dry needling may be an option. It can stimulate and release these areas, which relieves the pain.
Experts believe that placing small needles into the TPs can cause a twitch response. This reaction helps reverse both the chemical changes and some of the nerve dysfunction that may be causing the pain. The muscle cramps when the needle first enters the painful area and then slowly starts to relax with each entry and exit of the needle.
Physical therapists commonly perform dry needling, but other healthcare providers may also offer it. The procedure is fairly quick. Your provider will insert a needle for about 15 to 30 seconds at each point. The procedure typically totals about 10 to 15 minutes, but it depends on how many areas of your body they target.
Are dry needling and acupuncture the same thing?
No, they aren’t. Both place small needles in the body, but the goals and techniques differ. The goal of dry needling is to cause changes in muscle in the areas where you have pain. But acupuncture is based on a theory of energy flow. Acupuncture needles are placed at very particular locations, not always in the area of pain. And the needles stay in place for a longer period of time with acupuncture.
What conditions does dry needling help?
Dry needling can help with any condition with trigger points. Examples include:
Back and neck pain (including sciatica)
Joint pain (knee, hip, shoulder, etc.)
Rotator cuff (shoulder) pain
Foot pain from plantar fasciitis
How long does it take to work?
Most people get relief a few minutes after the procedure. They find it’s easier to move around, and their painful areas are not as tight as before.
Some people experience mild muscle cramping after dry needling sessions, so it’s best to stay hydrated around the time of the procedure. You may also consider soaking in a hot bath or hot tub. Massaging the area and stretching can also be helpful for these cramps.
How long do the effects of dry needling last?
This varies from person to person as well as how many trigger points you have. But the effects usually last for a few weeks to a few months.
A review of multiple studies on dry needling performed by physical therapists showed that it was effective for up to 12 weeks. But there were some differences in dry needling techniques. That said, it’s not clear why it might work for longer in some people. It may be due to the number of trigger points or additional causes of pain.
To maintain the benefits of dry needling, keep your muscles loose with heat, stretching, and yoga. Your provider may recommend certain exercises to help reduce your pain levels. They can also help you figure out whether you may need more dry needling treatments in the future.
“Wet” needling with steroid injection — commonly performed in a physician’s office — may provide relief for a longer period of time. But steroid injections have some drawbacks, such as side effects.
The bottom line
Dry needling involves inserting a small needle into trigger points — tight, painful areas within the muscles. It can be an effective tool in treating acute and chronic muscle-related pains, particularly after injuries. It doesn’t take long to feel relief, and results may vary depending on how many areas are treated. Overall, it’s best to talk to your healthcare professional to see if you can benefit.