Dry Needling is the name given to the use of medical grade needles in the treatment of myofascial pain and dysfunction. This approach is based on Western anatomical and neurophysiological principles and should not be confused with the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) technique of Acupuncture.
It has been operationally defined by the Virginia Board of Physical Therapy’s Task force on Dry Needling thus: “Dry Needling is a technique used to treat myofascial pain that uses a dry needle, without medication, that is inserted into a trigger point with the goal of releasing/inactivating the trigger points and relieving pain” (Virginia Board of Physical Therapy 2007: 2).
A myofascial trigger point can be defined as a “Hyperirritable spot in a skeletal muscle.” The spot is painful on compression and an active trigger point can give rise to characteristic referred pain, referred tenderness, motor dysfunction and autonomic phenomena.
Over the years it has been shown that it is possible to deactivate Trigger Points through needling. The needling mechanically disrupts the integrity of the dysfunctional endplates within the trigger area – resulting in biochemical changes within the Trigger Point ,which may lead to mechanical and physiological resolution of the active Trigger Point.
Research has shown that opioids (your body’s own pain killers) are released with needle stimulation.
It is important to see the needles as just one part of your overall rehabilitative treatment. Dry needling is not a miracle cure – it is a normal part of physiotherapy. It is very important that you follow the advice and exercise programme prescribed by your physiotherapist for you to benefit maximally through the treatment.
Your physiotherapist has been specifically trained in the various needling techniques and needles are selected specifically for an individualised treatment. You will feel a small pinprick and depending on the type of needle technique chosen by your therapist, you may also feel a muscle ache and a muscle twitch. These are all normal and good sensations, and mean that you will experience good relief from your symptoms.
In general, there is very little risk associated with this technique if performed properly by a trained physiotherapist. You may have a little bruising around the needle site, much the same as you would with any injection. On rare occasions, people may feel very happy, tearful, sweaty or cold. These symptoms all fade quickly. Fainting may occur in a very small minority of people. There are no lasting ill effects of these side effects.
If you are being treated in the shoulder, neck or chest area, there is an additional risk that involves your lung. If the lung itself is punctured, you may develop a condition called a pneumothorax (air in the space around the lung). This is a rare but serious problem, and you should go directly to a hospital casualty department without panicking if it occurs. The symptoms of this event include shortness of breath which gets worse, sudden sharp pain each time you breathe in, a bluish tinge to your lips, and an inability to “catch your breath”. The treatment is very successful for this rare but possible complication.