Dry Needling

Dry needling is one of the techniques used fairly regularly here at Prime Health Co. You may have heard about this technique before, but what is it actually used to treat? Are there any risks involved? Is it the same as traditional Chinese acupuncture? All those questions and more are answered in this post.

What is dry needling?

Dry needling is a technique used by chiropractors, physiotherapists, osteopaths and myotherapists to treat muscular pain and tension. Acupuncture needles are inserted into a muscle to release knots, known as myofascial trigger points.

What is dry needling used to treat?

This form of therapy is specifically used to treat a muscular disorder known as myofascial pain syndrome. It’s characterized by the presence of myofascial trigger points which are firm, ropey bands that can be felt within the muscle. They produce local tenderness and refer pain over large areas of the body. Trigger points in muscles can prevent them from being able to contract and stretch effectively. As a result, muscles become tight and weak leading to decreased range of motion and dysfunctional movement patterns.

Pressing firmly on a trigger point can reproduce its pattern of referred pain. Pain into the arm or leg is often perceived as a “pinched nerve” in the neck or back. Often, however, when the active trigger point is found and pressure is applied, the exact symptoms of arm or leg pain that are being experienced are reproduced.

infraspinatus myofascial trigger points

Pain referral zone of myofascial trigger points in the infraspinatus muscle. Travell & Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual: Volume 1: Upper Half of Body

What are some causes of myofascial trigger points?

Some potential causes for the development of trigger points are:

  • Repetitive overuse of a muscle when training, playing sport or working.

  • Acute overload of a muscle e.g. weight training, picking up a heavy object.

  • Sudden fast movements or bracing e.g. whiplash, playing squash.

  • Sustained shortened or lengthened positions of muscle e.g. bad posture or prolonged immobility.

  • Psychological causes such as stress, depression and anxiety which cause increased muscle tension.

  • Nutritional deficiencies e.g. anemia.

  • Endocrine / hormonal abnormalities e.g. hypothyroidism.

  • Viral and bacterial infections

How does dry needling work?

Muscular overload and sustained contraction increases the metabolic demand of the muscle but also constricts the small blood capillaries. As a result, oxygen and nutrients demanded by the muscle for energy production cannot be delivered and the metabolic waste produced by the muscle cannot be removed. This build-up of substances irritates local pain receptors and the failure of reuptake of calcium into the muscle leads to sustained contraction. The result – a tight, painful muscle.

The exact mechanism behind how dry needling works is still being debated. However, it is understood that dry needling and stretching combined helps release tight bands within muscle to normalize muscle tone and improve blood supply which helps to restore normal muscle physiology.

What is the difference between dry needling and acupuncture?

Dry needling has sometimes been referred to as “Western medical acupuncture”. Dry needling and traditional Chinese acupuncture are similar in that the same type of needle is used. But this is where the similarities end between these two forms of therapy.

Acupuncture is one of the oldest forms of ancient Chinese therapy. It is believed that the development of disease is a sign of imbalance between Yin and Yang energy in the body. Chinese acupuncture involves shallow needle insertion into points on the body to balance Yin and Yang energy for health restoration. It is used for a range of conditions including pain, allergies, nausea and high blood pressure. Dry needling involves inserting a needle into the muscle to treat myofascial trigger points. Resulting in decreased pain, tension and improved function of the muscle.

What does dry needling feel like?

When the needle is inserted into the skin it is usually painless as the needle is very thin. Occasionally there is a brief sting which lasts a few seconds. When the needle reaches the trigger point, you may experience a brief cramp or twitch within the muscle and a temporary increase in referred pain. This is known as a “local twitch response” and is a positive indicator that the exact location of the trigger point has been found.

After a few seconds you should feel a sensation of pain relief and reduced tension in the muscle.

chiropractor performing dry needling with acupuncture needles

Benefits of dry needling

Some of the benefits of this form of therapy are:

  • Relief of muscular pain and tension.

  • Increased mobility.

  • Improved contractile strength of muscle.

Side effects and risks

All forms of therapy carry some risk, and dry needling is no different. Sterile, single use acupuncture needles are always used and the skin cleaned to reduce any chance of infection.

A temporary increase in discomfort after the treatment is common, but this is not a reason for concern.

It usually resolves in 24-48 hours with gentle stretching, application of a heat pack and light massage. One may also feel tired following the treatment. Bruising or mild bleeding may occur, however, this is avoided by not needling those on blood thinning medication (Aspirin®, Warfarin®) and who are known to bruise or bleed easily. Pneumothorax (punctured lung) is rare and is avoided by not utilizing needles over high-risk areas such as the chest and muscles between the ribs.

How soon can I exercise after having dry needling?

Strenuous activities involving the muscles that were needled should be avoided for 2-3 days following the treatment. Patients are always encouraged to perform light aerobic exercise that allows them to move through a full range of motion but without placing too much stress on the muscles while they recover. Activities such as walking, yoga and swimming are recommended.

woman performing Yoga

In conclusion

Dry needling is an effective form of therapy with the best results achieved by combining it with other techniques provided by chiropractors such as stretching, joint mobilisation, manipulation and exercise rehabilitation.

To make a booking with our Brisbane chiropractors that perform dry needling, please use our online booking app.


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brisbane sports chiropractor dr michael benporath

About the author:

Dr Michael Benporath is a chiropractor with a postgraduate International Certificate in Sports Chiropractic. He practices at Prime Health Co. in Newmarket, Brisbane Northside.

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