Muscle pain and inflammation is sometimes so severe and disabling that people seek physical therapy to relieve their symptoms. Instead of just taking medicines all the time, some people opt to use dry needling, which is performed by trained physical therapists to relieve muscle contraction knots. Learn more about this technique, which you might consider including in your treatment plan.
How Does Dry Needling Work?
Muscle injury can result from acute trauma or repetitive use, causing inflammation and pain. With time, the injured muscle can become tense and contracted to keep itself protected from further damage. This inflammation and contracture can inhibit circulation, which may limit the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the injured tissue and at the same time, limit the removal of waste products from the affected site. The site becomes hypoxic (poor in oxygen) and this stimulates the body to produce scar tissue (fibrosis). This process results in the muscles’ reduced ability to function properly and can also cause irritation of surrounding nerves. The painful site with contracted muscle fibers become a myofascial trigger point, which when touched can exhibit severe pain.
With dry needling physical therapy, very fine needles are inserted into a painful and knotted muscle. This creates a local twitching reflex, which is therapeutic since it breaks the pain cycle. Research shows that this procedure decreases chemical irritation and muscle contraction, while at the meantime improves flexibility, thus relieving pain.
It is believed that the needle, which is inserted into the knotted muscle, will also produce an organized lesion that cuts between thousands of individual muscle fibers. Since the body will consider the needle as a foreign body, it will activate an immune system response. The affected muscle fibers will also produce an inflammatory reaction to which your body will respond, not just in the affected area, but all over the body, thus reducing inflammation systemically.
What Problems Can Dry Needling Deal With?
Dry needling can be a useful treatment for muscle pain, although it must be considered no more than an adjunct to a multidimensional approach to treatment for complete recovery. Most treatments, when used alone, offer only temporary relief and can fail altogether.
Dry needling physical therapy is believed to be effective in the management of certain conditions including:
- Acute and chronic tendonitis
- Sports-related injuries
- Overuse injuries
- Post-surgical pain
- Work related injuries
- Post-traumatic injuries
- Lower back pain
- Other chronic pains
For a demonstration of how dry needling is performed, please watch:
Controversy Surrounding Dry Needling
Is It Really Effective?
Dry needling physical therapy is relatively new, since the technique that is used today has only been developed in the 1980’s. At present, there are no standards for its use and no scientific research to back up its efficacy.
Is It the Same as Acupuncture?
According to many physical therapists, dry needling is not acupuncture because it is not based on the principle of this ancient practice, but rather, involves certain biomechanical and physiological knowledge that is related to physical therapy and chiropractic. However, some acupuncturists argue that dry needling is somewhat related to acupuncture, which requires minimal training and being re-branded with a new name.
Practitioners of dry needling often states that trigger points are not the same as meridians or acupuncture points. However, in 2006, a Mayo Clinic acupuncturist concluded that the two systems are 90% in agreement with each other. Recently, experts from the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine described dry needling as a form of acupuncture.
Is It Within the Scope of Physical Therapy?
Currently, some states have ruled against dry needling as being considered within the scope of practice of physical therapy because it involves puncturing the skin. These states include California, Florida, Idaho, Hawaii, New York, and Utah.