Scan search results on Google and you will find no shortage of opinion on the practice of dry needling. While many health professionals and patients swear by its effectiveness, others simply don’t believe that there is enough evidence to substantiate the many anecdotal claims made by both patients and practitioners.
For new patients considering dry needling for the first time, this type of debate among experts can be, at best, confusing and, at worst, outright worrying. All most people suffering from pain or discomfort want to know is what their problem is, how it can be treated and what the associated risks are.With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at dry needling – what’s involved, how it works and why you might need it.
Is dry needling the same as acupuncture?
While you would be forgiven for thinking that acupuncture and dry needling are one and the same, there are distinct differences between the two treatments.
A 5000 year-old practice, acupuncture is based around the belief that the body’s energy – known as chi – can be redirected to alleviate stress, pain and tension. Fine, single-use needles are inserted into specific points along the 12 major energy pathways or ‘meridians’, which are linked to the organs of the body. The purpose of acupuncture is to remedy blockages and energy imbalances that cause and contribute to pain and illness.
Dry needling is a technique focused on the treatment of muscular pain and myofascial dysfunction by targeting trigger points – hyperirritable spots on the body. As the name suggests, no fluid is used in the treatment and the injection of the needle is merely intended to stimulate a reaction from the central nervous system, easing pain, improving mobility and restoring muscle function.
Does dry needling work?
While a healthy skepticism is still maintained by many health professionals, dry needling has proven to be extremely effective in clinics around the world. As such, more and more practitioners are turning to dry needling and more general trigger point therapies in the treatment of myofascial pain and dysfunction.
It is important to note that healthcare never stands still and the constant quest for better treatments and more effective procedures means that everyone from surgeons to physiotherapists are constantly learning new things. Many health professionals would acknowledge that we don’t yet fully understand why trigger point therapies such as dry needling work, but that a growing body of evidence is suggesting that it really does have a positive impact on acute pain and muscular issues.
For the millions of people around the UK who suffer from nagging pains such as lower back pain, neck problems or rotator cuff issues, the problem can often be attributed to muscle knots –small areas of muscle tissue that are in spasm and starved of blood supply. Just a small patch of muscle cut off from circulation can lead to a broader problem across the muscle and even the wider musculoskeletal system.
Dry needling is not typically advised as an alternative to conventional treatments such as physiotherapy or chiropractic, but rather as a complementary treatment to accelerate pain reduction and restore normal tissue function.
While it has to be admitted that the exact mechanisms of dry needling are not fully understood, research using fMRI scanning has shown that the use of needles on trigger points activates the central nervous system by influencing the electrical and chemical communications in the body.As Jasper Hulscher, Clinical Director at Physio Cambridge, explains:
“In simple terms, dry needling has gained support because it can play a significant role in initiating the body’s own healing reaction and releasing pain-relieving chemicals into the brain.”
What can dry needling be used to treat?
Dry needling can be used to treat localised areas of acute myofascial pain and muscle spasms. However, studies have shown that dry needling a trigger point can also help to tackle referred pain – pain felt in other troublesome areas of the body that are linked to the knot in question.
For example, trigger points targeted in the muscles of the face, head and kneck may also ease issues such as toothaches, earaches and even tinnitus.
While it can often take several sessions to achieve the desired reaction, the cumulative effect of treatment can result in a significant improvement for the individual. Many people also find that dry needling results in better sleep, improved appetite and even increased energy levels.
“We are typically seeing a steady improvement in patient’s overall wellbeing as the result of a course of dry needling. And it is becoming clear that by tackling a localized area of pain, individuals can reap broader benefits such as improved sleep.
This may simply be because reduced pain is making it easier to rest and relax, but studies are also showing us that this type of trigger point therapy can stimulate the wider central nervous system in a positive way.”
It is important to note that while dry needling can be utilized for pain relief in conditions such as advanced osteoarthritis, it will not reverse the source of the muscle pain in these situations.
Is dry needling safe?
Although it is described as an “invasive treatment” due to the fact that needles are inserted into the skin, dry needling is a very safe treatment. The fine, single-use needles ensure that the treatment is clean, sterile and relatively pain-free. Although, the insertion of needles can feel like a sharp scratch, there is very rarely any bruising or bleeding caused at the point of insertion.
Following treatment, muscles may feel heavy and relaxed with some soreness for 24-48 hours. This can be reduced through the drinking of fluids and application of heat or ice.
How can I try dry needling?
It is crucial that dry needle trigger therapy is only performed by a qualified professional, trained in this particular form of treatment.
“The team here at Milton are constantly updating their skills and utilizing the very best evidence-based treatments. Should you be suffering from acute pain, one of our fully qualified practitioners will be well placed to advise on the best course of treatment – be it chiropractic, physio or dry needling. The most important thing for us as health professionals is that we keep our patients fully informed and help them understand how treatments may be used to achieve positive patient outcomes.”