On a superficial level you may think you’ve seen dry needling before. After all, it looks similar to acupuncture. That’s because both dry needling and acupuncture use a monofilament needle to relieve pain.

But that’s where the similarity ends.

Dry needling and acupuncture are different both in treatment and philosophy. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese therapy based on harmony in the body. It is believed that each person has many meridian pathways by which the body’s energy flows. When this energy, or chi, is blocked, acupuncture uses needles to redirect and restore the energy balance. Acupuncture is used by many for the treatment of systemic and visceral dysfunctions, emotional disorders, infertility, and a host of other conditions.

So what is dry needling? Dry needling is solely a neuromuscular therapy, and is used for the assessment and treatment of myofascial pain and dysfunctional movement. Its foundation is based on the Western understanding of anatomy and physiology, and its practice originated after tests in the 1940s showed how deep muscular injection stimulated pain relief.

Dry needling works by releasing trigger points. Trigger points are undesirable taut bands of muscle found in the body that contribute to the vicious cycle of abhorrent movement. Upon needle penetration, there is a neurophysiologic response that relaxes the activity at the trigger point and assists the restoration of normal tissue properties.

Dry needling is often described as an efficient way to hit the neuromuscular system’s reset button. After the reset and tissue normalization, proper movement is remodeled through an exercise prescription.

That is to say that dry needling isn’t an end in itself, but part of an overall treatment plan. It is a very useful tool, but not a magic stick. It is specific in its use, and the trigger points are isolated after careful examination based on Western neuromuscular assessments to interpret appropriate physical therapy treatments.

Candidacy for dry needling is based on clinical judgment and examination, which is to say the clinician is a chef, not a cook. But unless a patient has contraindications, if he or she is a candidate for Active Release Technique, it is more than likely that dry needling would also help. Dry needling should always be combined with exercise to re-pattern movement after mobility has been restored.

Of course, just like acupuncture, dry needling isn’t for everyone. Enduring the needle is dependent on the goal and presentation of the individual patient. Treatments can be scheduled up to twice a week or two times a month, depending on specific goals and responses.
Each treatment is also over fast. The trigger points in different muscles only need about 10-30 seconds of needling. And the incidence of potential risk is no more than acupuncture, though bruising and soreness are a normal response, similar to what patients feel after exercise. Overall, however, it has been shown to have an overall positive effect on the body’s physiology.