What is dry needling?
Dry needling (or functional dry needling) is a technique where one or more needles are inserted directly into muscles to improve the function of that muscle or region of the body.
Is dry needling the same as acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a technique that is based on traditional Chinese medicine which uses needles to stimulate certain areas around the body for a variety of reasons, often to relieve pain or improve wellness. Traditional acupuncture explains the effect of the technique is gained by balancing the “chi” or energy of the body using needles. While acupuncture and dry needling use the same type of needle, they are different in how they work! Dry needling is a technique that has been developed over the last few decades and works by directly stimulating the muscle and connecting nerves, resulting in improved function and reduced pain.
What is involved?
Dry needling is typically done during a 30-minute session, but the time may vary slightly based on how many areas your therapist will be working on. During your assessment, your therapist may identify certain muscles that are dysfunctional, meaning they are not as strong or flexible as they are expected to be. Once these areas are identified, the therapist will perform a series of tests to measure your muscle function before needling.
The technique itself involves inserting a very thin needle directly into a muscle. The therapist will try to stimulate the muscle with the needle, which may cause the muscle to twitch – this is perfectly normal! If there is no twitch, the therapist may decide to use a machine to give electrical stimulation to the needle. With this, you will feel a rhythmic buzzing or twitching in the muscle. Once the muscle is stimulated, the therapist removes the needle and retries the muscle tests to see if there is any change.
What should I expect to feel?
Dry needling is a very safe technique because it uses a very thin, rounded needle. During the insertion, you may feel some pain and achiness in the muscle, and the muscle may twitch – these symptoms are completely normal. You can help minimize any pain by staying still, keeping the muscle relaxed, and communicating with the therapist. After the session, you may have some muscle soreness, bruising, and/or fatigue (especially if this is your first time). These symptoms are also normal and should improve over the next several days. If you experience other unexpected symptoms, it is important to let your therapist know so they can help.
Typical recovery time for muscles from dry needling is one week, so your therapist may do dry needling with you once per week for multiple weeks in order to strengthen the effect.
How does dry needling work?
Dry needling helps to improve pain and function in three major ways:
- Local effect: When we say “local”, we mean the muscle that we are inserting the needle into. Inserting the needle into a muscle creates a relaxing effect of that muscle, which can improve pain and flexibility.
- Neurologic effect: Each muscle in our body is connected to one or more nerves. When we insert a needle into the muscle, the nerves that supply that muscle are also stimulated, sending signals back and forth to our spinal cord. The effect of this is that the muscle “resets”, which can restore lost strength and improve pain sensitivity. The interesting thing is that this can also affect other areas of the body that are connected to those nerves, creating a widespread effect on improving pain and muscle function!
- Biochemical effect: When our muscles are dysfunctional, the body produces chemicals that increase pain and inflammation in the area. Dry needling has been shown to stop or reverse the production of these pain-producing chemicals, which helps reduce pain and inflammation.
As great as the effects of dry needling seem, it is important to know that they usually last for about 48 hours. If we want to keep the effects going, we need to use those muscles that were needled! Your therapist will direct you to some exercises to work on, which are especially important in those first 48 hours to strengthen the effects of this technique.