Sticking It to the Pain: The Truth About Dry Needling

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When Jennifer McCracken from Cincinnati suffered a concussion and whiplash in a tubing accident, the headaches and muscle spasms persisted long after her pride had recovered. After hearing about the benefits of dry needling, she called a doctor of physical therapy to schedule the service. During the appointment, the therapist injected hollow, plastic needles into her cramped trapezius muscles.

“It wasn’t a piercing sensation, but rather an intense pressure feeling,” she says. “It didn't hurt, but I was very sore the next day, which is very normal. After a few days, I felt much better. The muscle spasms and tension were greatly reduced. However, I do have to keep up with exercises every day at home." Jennifer says that if her symptoms return, she would go back for more dry needling.

What Is Dry Needling?

Also known as trigger point dry needling or intramuscular manual therapy, dry needling is a technique used by some physical therapists, physicians and chiropractors to alleviate myofascial pain in the muscles and tissues. A thin filament needle (called "dry" because it contains no medication) is inserted into the "trigger point" of the affected muscle to stimulate relaxation and healing. Many believe the needle also improves circulation and alters how nerves respond to pain.

Dr. Keith Sparks, a chiropractor with the ICT Muscle & Joint Clinic, uses dry needling on his patients almost every day. "The technique works well for people suffering from myofascial pain syndromes, tension headaches, plantar fasciitis, epicondylosis, PFPS, IT band syndrome, carpal tunnel and many other musculoskeletal conditions," he says.

Although it may sound similar—and, indeed, uses the same thin filament needle—dry needling differs from acupuncture, which is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. "The main difference is the depth of the needle," Dr. Sparks explains. "Acupuncture inserts the needle into the subcutaneous tissue, closer to the skin surface, while dry needling may be used to target deeper tissue along a boney attachment site, for muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia."

Dry Needling in Action

One of Dr. Spark's recent patients, a high-performance athlete who does Olympic lifting and CrossFit, complained of chronic headaches, neck pain and shoulder pain. After finding no success with several other techniques, she decided to try dry needling. After just two sessions, she noticed considerable improvement in her pain-free range of motion.

Dr. Sparks has also used dry needling to treat running injuries. When an ultra-marathoner came in complaining of plantar fasciitis, Dr. Sparks found that the pain was coming from specific calf muscles. After dry needling was applied to the affected muscles, the patient was back to running pain-free.
Janelle Jankowski got dry needling three years ago to help with pain in her lower back, neck and shoulders after having her third baby. A single session with her physical therapist completely eliminated the pain and tightness. “I wouldn't say the procedure was terribly painful,” she says. “I could feel some pressure, kind of a dull pain, and then the needles had to sit in my skin and muscles for some time while I laid very still. I had a little bruising and tenderness after each procedure, but nothing too terrible.” Now, after having her fourth baby, Janelle’s symptoms have returned. She plans on returning for more dry needling soon.

Risks of Dry Needling

According to Dr. Sparks, the risk is minimal when the technique is performed by trained personnel using sterile equipment. Some patients experience minor bleeding and/or soreness 24 to 48 hours after treatment. Some very rare risks include pneumothorax, infection and needle breakage. For those who have blood clotting disorders or a general fear of needles, Dr. Sparks recommends seeking other, less invasive soft tissue methods.

What Science Says

Although many sing the praises of dry needling, supportive data is still lacking. In 2005, the Cochrane research group conducted a formal analysis of 35 trials evaluating the effectiveness of dry needling and acupuncture in treating lower back pain. Although researchers found that the alternative treatments "may be useful adjuncts to other therapies," they stated that there was insufficient evidence to draw a firm conclusion.

A clinical review in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine cited that numerous studies had confirmed the effectiveness of dry needling, which was described as "minimally invasive, cheap, easy to learn with appropriate training and carrying a low risk." However, the authors stated that additional studies are needed, particularly regarding the development of pain at myofascial trigger points.

Before You Try Dry Needling

If you're interested in trying dry needling for pain relief, it's best to consult your primary physician to ensure that you're a good candidate. When scheduling your session, be sure to ask the provider about their experience and training in dry needling.

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PATRICIA-CR 8/29/2020
I hope so! Report
RAZZOOZLE 7/13/2020
thank you Report
NANCYB191 3/25/2020
I have had many dry needle treatments after a fall. They were done by my physio therapist. I had pain and stiffness in my neck, arms, elbows, wrists and hands. They worked fast and well. Sometimes when the nerve is hit, it would jump or tingle, but that was all. I will continue this any time he thinks it is the right thing to do.
CRZYTECH1 12/30/2019
I'd like to echo GENKI_LADY's comment, this article seems to be lacking in supporting evidence, and reads like an ad. Disappointing, as most articles I read on here are at least of an "ok" caliber. Report
ANHELIC 12/11/2019
Thank you Report
GENKI_LADY 11/19/2019
I find this “Scrap it or Spark it” to be pretty upsetting. They say there is not scientific evidence to support this works- and yet suggest you schedule a session? They interview me doctor who is a practitioner of woo who gives a couple anecdotal stories. Not enough to be statistically significant. Peddling this information is, while well intentioned, dangerous if you seek alternative treatment for a condition that requires more than placebo to treat. People prey upon those desperate for relief and will gladly take your money. Remember that medicine is just alternative medicine that works. Anyway, here’s an article about Dry needling that cites far more resources and talks through the same points through a more science based lens.
y-needling/ Report
USMAWIFE 11/9/2019
Thank you Report
Thanks for the information Report
Thanks for the info! Report
Curious how dry needling is different from acupuncture?? Those needles were dry as well... Report
This is new to me. I hope it really helps. Report
I am happy to learn more about this. I know somebody who is going through this. Report
My physical therapist is trying dry needling on my severely arthritic knee. Once a week for the past 5 weeks. No bruising. But also I can't say I am seeing much result unfortunately. He is also trying blood flow restriction training to reinforce my thigh muscles, and I do see results. Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
thanks Report
Thanks for the information Report
I've never heard of this. It sounds intriguing. Report
Just happy to know that you felt better after your treatment. Report
Unless the member is a specialist in the listed area, they should not be used as an information source. No studies proved this method is useful so why is it even addressed. Report
Hand therapy is easier and can be done anywhere.. Report
Thank you Report
No way Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
I have heard about this treatment. A member of where I work was trying it. Sounded kind of painful. She said it was uncomfortable, but it did seem to help. She had 4 sessions and doesn't seem to need more and that has been a year and 1/2. So those with chronic pain issues can try it. She would do it again because it gave her effective relief. Report
I'm a NP and I've had dry needling done in both my hips and foot by my PT (who has a doctorate as most do for those above who mentioned credentialing, and extensive training in the modality). It has brought me relief and I would use again as needed. The needles themselves are basically painless. When they hit a trigger point there is some discomfort and even some rare involuntary twitching but that resolves quickly. It loosens the knots/trigger points and stimulates blood flow to the area. I've rarely had bruising (usually small around insertion site) and soreness has been minimal (no more than a good work out). Applying heat after the treatment can also reduce any soreness. It is not a miracle cure, especially for bone on bone problems at the joints if but you have muscle knots, inflammation from bone spurs that can trigger nerve pain (my case), or soft tissue concerns, it's worth checking out. Report
I had it on several occasions for should pain and back pain, it worked well but the person I used to go to has past away. Report
I have heard of successes w/dry needling. Thanks for the information. Report
Thank you Report
I have never heard of this one before. Thank you for your well explained info! Report
I will have my first dry needling session on Friday for my plantar fascitis Report
Sorry, it froze up and wouldn’t let me edit my comment. I meant doctor... Report
I don’t get why you wouldn’t just go to a DO doctotoc who practices OMT. Much better and safer imo. Report
My PT explained the science behind dry needling and I decided to give it a try. A couple sessions included electric stimulation of the muscle which felt strange, but increased the effectiveness of the therapy. The piriformis muscle is difficult to reach with massage and stretching. This therapy was the next step I needed to start to move without deep hip pain. Report
Best thing ever. Never heard of it until my physical therapist suggested it after nothing was working for my frozen shoulder. Report
This is new to me. I’ll have to look into it. Report
As a nurse it's hard for me to get my head around WHY this might work but in desperation, I tried it and call it a "placebo effect" or what you will, I got a lot of relief from it. I'd still be going if I didn't have to pay out of pocket for it. Report
Never heard of this either but my former (and the very best) physical therapist used manual manipulation at trigger points and it hurt beyond description in process but she talked me through all of it. The next day and for a few weeks the pain was gone. A word of warning - if you have any autoimmune disorders (I have several) you cannot undergo unnecessary needling/acupuncture because you do have a higher risk of infection. Report
I used dry needling for my back, groin, and knee. For the first time in years my back pain was finally gone. If I stand for long periods of time, the pain comes back, but it is gone the next day. That was not the case before the dry needling. It was not painful (although I was a little sore that evening.) Truly helped me. My physical therapist is trained in dry needling, and I only had to pay my usual co-pay. Report
I used dry needling for a year for lower back and hip issues. I experienced temporary relief but not long term. I feel the reason was that I have degeneration and arthritis in between L5-L2. I feel that as was mentioned in the article dry needling can be very helpful in some specific areas. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to try the procedure and only wish it could have eliminated my issues. Report
I experienced dry needling this summer. My physical therapist recommended we add this to my therapy regime to release tension in my shoulders and neck...ultimately to help with my TMJ. The treatment itself was "interesting" a completely different sensation...pretty uncomfortable. I had extensive bruising and no improvement, so my PT and I agreed to discontinue that aspect of my treatment plan. Report
I just finnished Physical Therapy for my hip, and one of the techniques used on me was trigger point therepay, no needles, just the therapist hands. Report
Never heard of dry needling, but it sounds like a limited version of acupuncture which works very well. I recommend acupuncture so would definitely give dry needling a chance. Report
Never heard of this option, but have successfully used acupuncture to help with pain and with a slow metabolism. My area is pretty backwards with alternative medicines, so hope to find this on my travels and give it a try! Thanks. I do like the Spark it or Scrap it series! Report
My massage therapist is trying to get my IT bands to loosen up. It is VERY painful! I wonder if this would help.... Report
I have been a practitioner of energetic wellness for over 26 years, and have used trigger point therapy with great success. No needles necessary, just your fingers and some knowledge of the location of the trigger points. What's great about it is, you can learn to treat many problems yourself. Questions? feel free to Spark Mail me. Report
I've never heard of this option for treatment. However, I have used acupuncture successfully to treat my body's internal imbalances. -- Acupuncture has helped a great deal & does NOT required bio-altering prescriptions!

Thanks for presenting another option for treating the body without taking a drug! Report
Wow, very interesting. I had never heard of dry needling before this article. Thanks for filling me in.

The article quotes a clinical trial in the Journal of the American Board of Family medicine as saying, "minimally invasive, cheap, easy to learn with appropriate training and carrying a low risk." While it may not be expensive (or "cheap" as they say here), I imagine it can be tricky to get an insurance company to cover it. Most alternative therapies are not approved, and they can add up quickly... especially when so much of the paycheck already goes to health insurance and related expenses.

I hope as more studies come out on alternatives to pharmaceutical medicine (aka Western medicine), that those with proven track records will be covered more frequently. It wasn't that long ago chiropractic care was not covered, and now many plans do cover it. So there's hope! Report
Never heard of this. Acupuncture I have heard and tried but that practitioner moved out of state. Report