The practice of dry needling has been around for years now, but it seems to have taken on a new popularity as of late. I wouldn’t be hard-pressed to say that I have at least one client per week asking me about it! So, what is it really – and do you need it?
First off, dry needling should ONLY be administered by a certified practitioner—often a physical therapist or chiropractor. The technique is technically safe overall, but it’s still a pseudoscience, and not even legal in every state in America.
The practice is called “dry needling” because it employs disposable, solid tip needles (read: the needle is dry – there is no liquid to be injected, as we’d picture with a syringe). For an accurate mental image, if you’ve ever seen or received acupuncture, the same style of needle is used for this practice.
As a final, overarching point, it’s worth noting that dry needling isn’t typically a solo treatment; instead, it’s often supplementary to something like aforementioned physical therapy or chiropractic treatment.
As far as what dry needling actually does, the concept is pretty simple, but the execution may not be. The technique takes that thin, “dry” needle and pierces specific areas in an effort to manage issues like pain from musculoskeletal dysfunctions, including impaired movement.
That being said, these specific areas are not pre-determined, universal spots, or even those lining up with meridians, as in traditional Eastern acupuncture.
A dry needle practitioner will attempt to locate trigger points (painful, stuck spots within muscle bellies), and treat them by sticking them with the needle—hopefully as close to “dead on” as possible. In theory, this sharp stick will force a contraction and subsequent relaxation of the muscle, relieving the client of their symptoms.
Research is still pretty shaky when it comes to the efficacy of dry needling. One issue may be practitioner error (not quite hitting the perfect spot, assuming there is one), but some studies even point to dry needling being no more effective at alleviating symptoms than traditional stretching.
This next part may not come as a surprise but, I’m not a huge advocate of dry needling for anyone.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve had it done and it has worked for you, that’s fantastic and totally valid. I absolutely support everyone’s decisions in their own care and wellbeing, and I would never discourage anyone from or look down upon anyone for doing what works for them.
In fact, I feel certain that dry needling likely does work for some folks – but I do believe those who have a noticeably positive experience are among a slim, lucky minority, and as I mentioned, the data we have currently supports that thought.
To further explain why I don’t particularly encourage you to get dry needling done, I’d like to discuss the concept of trigger points in a bit more detail. I do plan to discuss trigger points in their own, dedicated blog post, so I’ll keep things streamlined here. Let’s start with the set-up.
Essentially (and if you’ve been on my table in pain before, you may have heard me discuss this), there are many instances of muscle pain, discomfort, spasm, tingling, burning, itching, numbness, limited range of motion, and similar negative sensations which are caused by trigger points—suffocated and displaced muscle fibers, in other words.
Your tooth pain, your headaches, a sensation of fullness in your ears, a biting pain in your shoulder blade, inability to take a deep breath – there is an endless list of issues within the body that often boil down to sustained muscle tension.
It can be hard to accept that our severe pain is simply a stuck, unhappy muscle, I know. For as much agony as we can be in and for as debilitating as it can be, it just seems unbelievable. We want a grandiose diagnosis for our grandiose pain, and we discredit muscles and trigger points as the big deal that they are.
Perhaps that’s why the seemingly intense and foreign practice of dry needling catches people’s attention, while ordinary stretching, stress management, and massage therapy do not.
I discussed this survival-perspective phenomenon in a post this past October on body maintenance and why it’s so hard. If the world were a stage, this would surely be a common human trope, but in order to reach that place of enlightenment where we’re sincerely relishing our daily lives, we need to overcome the reflex and give more credit to the small, everyday stuff.
So, I’ll repeat:
Trigger points are a big deal. The way your muscles function is a huge deal. Your habits and routines are the most tremendous deal of all.
Everything you do regularly affects your body, and your body doesn’t care if you’re paying attention or not. As a result, we tend to push our bodies to their maximum capacity of caring for us, and by the time we’re seeking relief, we’re way further in trouble than we believe.
Our bodies are incredible. They will hide pains if we ask them to; they will compensate for us when we need them to; they will continue to do their best job, even if we abuse them for years with a poor diet, a high-stress lifestyle, or a general lack of self-care.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you have debilitating trigger points in your muscles, your body has literally reached its peak of what it can handle and do for you.
With that aside, we circle back to the fact that our daily actions, even the most mundane and harmless ones, can very easily be the root of those grandiose pains and issues we end up with.
Those little discomforts you feel here and there don’t just go away – even if you stop feeling them or noticing them. Your body will do what it can to let you keep on living, but your choice to ignore it and not care for yourself will come back around with a vengeance.
Trigger points are one such form of “getting what’s coming to you,” and treatment includes the things you should have been doing all along to prevent them in the first place.
If you do need help to alleviate trigger points, however, (which is common since they are the climax of a long-term problem), massage with a knowledgeable, licensed therapist is a non-invasive option that brings with it a host of other benefits you probably need at that stage anyway.
And this isn’t me trying to sell massage therapy, to persuade anyone to come to my clinic, or to puff up the massage community. Massage has been used since ancient times to provide bodily wellness and pain management, and many therapists today are trained specifically in how to handle these trigger points appropriately.
One fact about trigger points is that they can move and change as you’re working on them, and having a static needle jabbed into your muscle isn’t going to be able to adapt to that. Massage also allows for you as the client to have control over the pressure being applied during treatment, since trigger points can vary greatly in sensitivity.
Anyone who has had true trigger point massage therapy can tell you that it’s not at all relaxing. It’s uncomfortable at best and painful at worst, and nothing like the sort of massage that some people likely envision when they’re told that a massage can help with their searing pain.
To the unfamiliar, dry needling probably does seem to be a good option sheerly because it sounds like a level of drastic that better equates to the pain they’re feeling, which makes sense but is unfortunately inaccurate.
Ultimately, it’s your body, your life, and your decision. You can treat yourself however you want. If you want to try dry needling, far be it from me to forbid you to do so, but I’ll be one of the last ones to suggest it.
In a book I have on trigger point therapy, the author states that “healing is a two-way process,” and I think it bears repeating that regardless of the services we choose to make use of, we also have to take responsibility and do our part if we truly want to feel good in our bodies.
Getting a massage, getting dry needling, going to physical therapy or a chiropractor, even taking Western pain medicines—none of them are going to facilitate lasting change if you’re not also involved personally and consistently in your day-to-day life.
As with anything, people can help you, but no one can fix it for you – with a needle or otherwise.
About the author: Muscle Memory Massage
I'm so excited to be here in Cahaba Heights, supporting our community with relaxation, stress relief, and pain mitigation. I love it here, and I hope you'll love me being here, as well!
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