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What is Trigger Point Dry Needling?

Since trigger point dry needling is a technique that I use often at Outshine, I thought it might be a good idea to write a blog post answering some of the commonly asked questions.

Trigger point dry needling is a technique used to treat musculoskeletal pain and movement issues. It involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points in the muscles, known as trigger points, to release tension and alleviate pain. These trigger points are hypersensitive areas within the muscle that are contributing to referred pain and restricted movement.

Why do we get trigger points?

Our bodies can develop these trigger points as a response to many stressors like intense exercise, emotional stress, repetitive work, chronic postures, etc.

Some examples of folks that would benefit from dry needling to help their pain and muscle tightness are:

-the hair stylist with upper traps that always feel shrugged up near their shoulders from working with their arms out in front of them

-the weightlifter with over developed lats which are keeping him from getting fully overhead with snatches

-the runner dealing with Achilles tendinopathy because of tightness in their calves

-the Burn Boot Camp member who did a high-volume workout on a back and glute day leaving them with lower back tightness

Active people get active trigger points. This leads to a variety of symptoms including soreness, tightness, limited mobility, pain, and even nerve/vascular compression which can contribute to more complex symptoms. All of this can limit our performance and if ignored can start limiting us in our day-to-day activities.

What does the needle actually do to the trigger point?

When dry needling, we are looking to elicit a local twitch response within the muscle. This is a quick contraction reflex that research shows when elicited leads to decreased muscle spasm, increased flexibility, and pain relief. Depending on the area in the body, the twitch is often visible. Often times we see an immediate improvement in pain, range of motion, and function.

At a cellular level we expect dry needling to increase blood flow, create neurochemical changes with the release of endorphins, stimulate neural pathways, and to create the local twitch response.

What conditions can dry needling help treat?

Dry needling is just one tool in the toolbox used to treat a large variety of conditions. Some of the conditions I use dry needling for often are:

-Headaches, neck and jaw pain

-Mid and lower back pain

-Joint pain related to arthritis and many other issues

-Piriformis syndrome/sciatica

-Tennis or golfer’s elbow

-Plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinopathy

A sports physical therapist dry needling a weightlifter in his shoulder in her gym-based clinic

What is it called “dry” needling?

It’s called dry because no medication or solution is injected. The needles are thin, stainless steel, one-time use needles.

Is dry needling the same as acupuncture?

Dry needling does use acupuncture needles. Otherwise, the philosophy and techniques are quite different. Dry needling is based on western medicine with research principles. Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine principles and focuses on balancing the flow of energy (Qi) through meridians in the body to promote healing. The needles in acupuncture are placed along these precise pathways which could be all over the body.

In contrast, trigger point dry needling targets very specific taut bands that are related to a more local musculoskeletal issue. It gets right to the root of your pain.

A performance physical therapist dry needling a patient's rotator cuff muscle with a close up view

Does it hurt?

Everyone has a different response depending on the area being dry needled, experience with dry needling, pain tolerance, chronicity of the issue, etc. It is most usually described as a deep, achy soreness. Usually, the needle actually penetrating the skin is not felt. Once the needle has been inserted, your Doctor of Physical Therapy may use different techniques such as working the needle around some to elicit the local twitch response. This gives us a clear sign that we have positively affected the tissue.

More twitches can be associated with greater levels of muscle soreness that can last for a few hours up to about 2 days after the dry needling session. It is a muscle soreness that is more like the soreness we get after working out and different than your usual pain. There are no restrictions after dry needling, but your therapist will help guide you in what to be focusing on in the days following the dry needling.

Still have some questions? Give me a call at 828-808-3704 to see if dry needling is something that can help you!

-Dr. Sieara, PT, DPT, CSCS


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