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Exploring dry needling

By Clay Hoffman
Physiotherapist at Life Ready Physio Bicton

What is dry needling?
Dry needling is a treatment used for various myofascial conditions and involves the insertion of a fine needle into the tissue. Although acupuncture and dry needling use the same needles, they differ based on their underlying theories.

Dry needling works on the premise of deactivating specific trigger points that form within our muscle or fascia.

What are trigger points?
A trigger point is a hyperirritable area inside a tissue and can often be felt as a taut band when touched. Trigger points can be either active or latent.

An active trigger point may refer pain to other sources and can often be felt through movement. If you’ve ever experienced the sensation of having a prolonged knot or stitch in a muscle, this is likely an active trigger point.

Latent trigger points are isolated to a specific location and are only noticeable when they are subject to direct pressure. Trigger points can occur for a number of reasons including trauma, prolonged immobilisation, strenuous activity or exposure to extreme temperatures.

While many trigger points will disappear spontaneously, some can persist and require intervention.

How does dry needling work?
Dry needling is commonly used to decrease pain but the mechanisms behind this response are complex and still not completely understood. Direct stimulation from the needle into the trigger point is thought to activate an inhibitory signal from the brain which dampens the pain response. After needling, blood flow is also increased to the affected area which may help restore normal tissue characteristics. The presence of a trigger point within a muscle and associated pain can contribute to feelings of tightness and reduced range of motion. By dry needling the trigger point, muscle tone can be reduced and movement increased.

What can dry needling treat?
Dry needling can be used in the treatment of most chronic and acute musculoskeletal disorders and is frequently used in the treatment of back and neck pain, but can also be used on the limbs to treat common peripheral conditions.

While there is good evidence supporting dry needling and its role in pain relief, it has not been found as effective when it comes to improving function. For this reason, dry needling is rarely used as a standalone treatment. Needling may be used to decrease and control pain which can increase the effectiveness of other interventions like stretching and strengthening, that will help to improve function.

Is it safe?
While dry needling is relatively safe, there are some risks due to its invasive nature. The most commonly reported side effects are pain and bruising in the needled area, and drowsiness following the treatment. People with certain medical conditions, such as blood clotting or autoimmune disorders may not be suitable candidates to receive dry needling. If you think that dry needling might benefit you, speak to your physiotherapist and they can help determine whether it is an appropriate treatment option.

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