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What is Dry Needling?

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Updated March 2020

Dry needling is a treatment technique involving the use of a thin, solid filament needle to deactivate and/or desensitize trigger points in muscles without injecting any substance (hence “dry”). Myofascial trigger points (commonly referred to as muscle knots) are taut bands of muscle within a larger muscle and can contribute to pain, decreased mobility or flexibility, and decreased muscle function. Dry needling these trigger points can help “reset” a muscle by decreasing pain and dysfunction. When used in combination with therapeutic exercise, dry needling can be used to help re-train and re-establish more appropriate movement patterns.

Dry needling is commonly referred to as IMS (Intramuscular Stimulation) or FDN (Functional Dry Needling).

Dry Needling Vs. Acupuncture

Although the needles used in acupuncture and dry needling are virtually the same, the treatment approach and desired influence on the body are vastly different.

Traditional acupuncture is based on ancient Eastern medicine and aims to balance and restore energy flow throughout the body by inserting needles along meridian lines, which represent the body’s organs. Western models of acupuncture also exist, which use anatomy, physiology and current medical models. In both cases, acupuncture treatment typically involves several needles being left in place for 15-30 minutes to influence pain or a variety of internal ailments.

Dry needling is based on anatomy and neurophysiology and its aim is to alter dysfunctional muscle to improve and restore function, reduce pain, and influence the nervous system. In most cases, a single needle is used to find trigger points and then is almost immediately removed from the tissue. Here’s a short clip from Dr. Chan Gunn, explaining his IMS technique.

Is Dry Needling Painful? What Should I Expect?

In most cases, you will not feel the needle penetrate the skin; however, as the needle is advanced into the tissue, levels of discomfort can vary. When a dysfunctional/shortened muscle or a trigger point within a muscle is reached, you may feel a muscle cramp sensation known as the “twitch” response followed by a heavy or dull aching sensation. This can be localized or referred to other associated areas. Although it is a new sensation for many, the twitch response is often welcomed by most as it indicates that a trigger point has been deactivated and muscle function and length have been restored! Positive results are typically seen within 2-4 treatment sessions.

Following treatment, it is normal to have muscle soreness similar to that which you may feel the morning after a hard workout. This should however be different than the symptoms for which you were seeking treatment. Not to worry... hot baths and icing are safe after treatment!

Conditions That Can be Treated with Dry Needling

As muscle dysfunction can be a major contributor to or result of many different conditions, there is a long list of conditions that can be influenced by dry needling. To name a few, dry needling has been shown to be effective in the treatment of tendonitis, rotator cuff impingement, low back and neck pain, tension headaches, carpal tunnel, and plantar fasciitis. In general, if active trigger points are contributing to muscle tightness and/or weakness, or are found to be causing pain, a trial of dry needling may be of benefit.

Possible Reasons Why Dry Needling Might Not be For You

Although dry needling is a safe technique with very few risks and side effects, it is not appropriate for everyone or in all cases. Some reasons for not needling are:

  • If you have a significant aversion or phobia of needles

  • Pregnancy

  • Bleeding/vascular disorders or uncontrolled anticoagulant usage

  • Compromised immune system

  • Infections or active tumours

  • Recent surgery

To be safe, always be forthcoming when discussing your past and present medical history with your therapist. If you are unsure whether dry needling is safe or appropriate for you or have any further questions about the concepts in this blog, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at the clinic!

Jayme Gordon graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Master's degree in Physical Therapy. Prior to this she completed a Bachelor's of Science Kinesiology degree at the University of Victoria. She is a member of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association as well as the Physiotherapy Association of BC. Jayme has a passion for working with a diverse patient population ranging from athletes to community dwelling seniors. Book with Jayme today.

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