Dry Needling: Everything You Need to Know

Don't be afraid if your physical therapist suggests using needles to ease muscle aches. In the hands of a professional, it's a totally safe technique.
Dry Needling: Everything You Need to Know

Last update: 20 April, 2020

We don’t usually associate being pricked with needles with going to the physical therapist. However, dry needling is becoming more and more popular because of its beneficial results. In the hands of a professional, the risks are practically non-existent.

What is dry needling?

Dry needling uses acupuncture needles to relieve the patient’s myofascial pain. This means that if you’re feeling pain somewhere in your body, and the tests indicate that it may be a muscular problem, the therapist might recommend dry needling.

They’ll take a needle and proceed to prick the muscle from different angles, looking for a response. When the muscle has contracted several times, the therapist removes the needle and the treatment ends.

Depending on the muscle that requires the treatment, the therapist will choose between two types of needles; they can either result in a superficial puncture or a deep puncture. The superficial puncture is good for when the muscle that requires the treatment is half an inch deep or less. If the affected muscle is deeper, they’ll need a longer needle to stimulate it.

Is it a dangerous method?

A properly trained physical therapist will know exactly which precautions to take when performing a dry needling treatment. Therefore, in the hands of a professional, there’s nothing to fear.

The most severe complications that can happen with this type of technique have to do with the location of the muscle. For example, if the muscle is just above the lungs, therapists must be extremely careful when performing a deep puncture.

A physical therapist using the dry needling technique on the back of a patient

Similarly, if we’re treating the upper part of the shoulder, we should be careful not to tip the needle towards the neck. The goal is to avoid damaging the structures that are there. Logically, a physical therapist will be aware of these important details.

It’s important to mention once again that this therapy uses acupuncture needles. This means that the diameter of the needles is around 0.009 inches (0.25 mm). Try to imagine how thin that is!

It’s obvious then that these needles are nothing like the ones that doctors use for vaccines or to take blood samples. Those types of needles have a much larger diameter in order to inject or remove fluids.

It’s also important to understand two things. On the one hand, it’s practically impossible for such a fine needle to damage another type of tissue, such as a nerve or vein. Not only will the tissues tend to stray out of the way of the needle if it rubs against them, but the needle itself is very flexible.

Therefore, if it encounters a harder structure, it’ll give way and deviate its trajectory before causing damage. Another alternative is that the physical therapist may notice that the needle isn’t going any deeper and they’ll change the angle of insertion.

Does dry needling hurt?

The pain caused by dry needling is also practically nil. You won’t notice a single thing, or you may feel a slight tickling at most, but the penetration of a needle that thin shouldn’t cause pain.

Now, when it comes to stimulating the muscle, you’ll notice how it involuntarily contracts, which can cause a little discomfort. At the end of therapy, you might be left with some residual muscle pain while you recover.

Therefore, the painful part isn’t the needle or the insertion. In any case, we can suffer from some discomfort while the muscle heals.

Inserting an acupuncture needle in the back of a patient

Indications for dry needling

The goal of dry needling is to remove the patient’s active or latent trigger points. In other words, it’s usually meant to treat contractures.

They’re specific points of the muscle that produce pain when we touch them. They end up making it impossible for the muscle to carry out its function correctly.

The dry needling procedure should be applied to that same area, winding the muscle fibers on the needle and stimulating the muscle so that the affected fibers are then relaxed. This relaxation will happen along with greater blood supply to the area. Therefore, the trigger point will disappear because the healing components in the blood will reach the muscle effectively.

Finally, the few contraindications for this technique are cases in which the patient is afraid of needles, suffers from metal allergies, or has clotting problems. It’s very important to be careful with pregnant women and to avoid puncturing over areas with wounds or spots.

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