A conversation I have at some point with just about every client is: “What is dry needling and how is it different than acupuncture?”
I always start by saying dry needling is not acupuncture. To illustrate this point, I first discuss the definitions of acupuncture from the North Carolina Acupuncture Licensing Board’s (NCALB) general public information page: “The theory and practice of acupuncture is based on Oriental medicine (also known as traditional Chinese medicine), a comprehensive natural health care system that has been used in Asian countries for thousands of years to preserve health and diagnose, treat and prevent illness.”
I explain that I have a ton of respect for acupuncturists and their work is incredibly helpful for certain clients. However, for me to explain what acupuncture is and how it works in my own words would be a disservice. So again, I pull from the NCALB’s general public information page: “Acupuncture treats health conditions by stimulating “acu-points” found at specific locations on the surface of the body. Acupuncturists stimulate the acu-points by inserting very thin needles through the skin to produce physiological effects. Other methods are also used to stimulate acu-points, such as heat or finger-pressure. The general theory of acupuncture is that proper physiological function and health depend on the circulation of nutrients, substances and energy called Qi (pronounced “chee”) through a network of “channels” or “meridians.” This network connects every organ and part of the body, providing balance, regulation and coordination of physiological processes. Pain and ill-health result when the flow of Qi through the body is disrupted or blocked by many things, including disease, pathogens, trauma/injuries and medication (side-effects), as well as lifestyle factors such as overwork, poor diet, emotions, lack of rest and stress. Stimulation of the appropriate acu-points through acupuncture treatments helps to restore sufficient, continuous and even flow of Qi and other nutrients throughout the body, thereby restoring health and balance to the body, while relieving pain and other symptoms.”
Before I discuss dry needling, I always state again that I am a believer in the role of acupuncture as part of the full medical tapestry. However, as a Doctor of Physical Therapy who regularly uses dry needling to successfully treat a wide variety of orthopedic musculoskeletal problems, the philosophy and scientific methodology are different. Not necessarily one better than the other, just different.
My goal with dry needling is primarily to affect a muscle and its interaction with the rest of the body. Every muscle in our body has an optimal length-tension relationship. Balance in this relationship allows the body to stand erect, move athletically with ease and without pain. The way we use and hold our bodies has an impact on this system. Poor posture, improper loading, and continuing this movement over time often leads to muscles being overused and tightening, which can turn into trigger points. Certain muscles can also become underused causing it to weaken and have poor firing ability.
Just like any learned movement, like throwing or kicking a ball, dysfunctional movements also develop muscle memory and form strong neural bonds. This means to regain proper movement we have to re-learn how to move.
Dry needling is an incredible tool I incorporate in my therapy programs to make this possible. Since I am working directly in the muscle, when performed properly, dry needling can release trigger points, increase flexibility, improve activation, and possibly the most important component, reset the neural feedback loop. This last component is the most beneficial as it creates a window of time where long lasting change can occur.
When combining dry needling with other manual techniques and therapeutic exercises and activities, I’ve seen my clients overcome long lasting problems and pain. So for me, it’s a simple formula: Reset the system and then re-learn how to load it properly for long-lasting change.
Of course after discussing all of this, the next inevitable question is: “Does dry needling hurt?”
My answer is that it varies from person to person. For most people, they don’t feel the needle itself much. What is felt the most is the muscles’ response to the needle when a trigger point is released. Afterward, soreness is very common and to be expected. The area worked on typically feels as if you worked out really hard, so for most it’s a familiar feeling. In some cases and depending on how much work was done, the soreness can last up to 48 hours. Admittedly, dry needling doesn’t feel like a nice, relaxing massage, but the benefits are tremendous and long-lasting.
If after reading this you would like to know more, or have questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dr. Taylor Pope, PT, DPT, FDNP, Co-Owner of Chain Effect