Having recently completed some further professional training in medical acupuncture and dry needling, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain what it is all about.
Acupuncture or dry needling?
Dry needling is often confused with Chinese acupuncture but although the two practices use similar tools, that’s where the similarities end.
Acupuncture is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine and focuses on treating various health conditions and alleviating pain by restoring the flow of energy (Qi) through key points in the body, called meridians, to restore balance.
Dry Needling is primarily focused on reducing pain and restoring function through the release of myofascial trigger points in soft tissue. It follows evidence-based guidelines including recommended point locations and dosages for the treatment of specific conditions. Dry needling also restores movement through a joint where it is inhibited by myofascial trigger points and increases blood flow to the area to promote healing.
Evidence supports that dry needling improves pain control, reduces muscle tension and normalises dysfunction of the motor end plates, the sites at which nerve impulses are transmitted to muscles. It is regularly used to treat myofascial pain and dysfunction by physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors and massage/soft tissue therapists.
What is a Myofascial Trigger Point (MTrP)?
Travell and Simons defined the myofascial trigger point as ‘‘a hyper-irritable spot, usually within a taut band of skeletal muscle or in the muscle fascia which is painful on compression and can give rise to characteristic referred pain, motor dysfunction, and autonomic phenomena’’.
Myofascial trigger points may develop after injury or repetitive strain to the muscle (stress and anxiety can also contribute to the development of MTrPs). It can be felt as a nodule or band in the tissue and the muscle is often tense where the taut bands or trigger points are located. A local twitch response may be elicited on manual or needle stimulation of a trigger point.
MTrPs can be active of latent. Active MTrPs cause localised pain and referred pain that generally follows the pattern of the person’s complaint. Pain is often felt as a deep radiating pain. Latent MTrPs do not refer pain currently but may do when pressure or strain is applied. A latent trigger point can turn into an active trigger point.
MTrPs are not pleasant! They can lead to deep aching pain, joint stiffness, decreased range of movement and sleep disturbance and are very sensitive to touch. Inserting a needle into an active trigger point helps to deactivate it by interrupting dysfunctional processes that are going on within the muscle and therefore decreasing the pain that it is causing. It also increases the local blood flow. Both of these things will assist with the healing of the tissue.
What to expect
A sterile, single-use, fine filament (acupuncture) needle is inserted into the muscle. This needle may be left there for a short time and/or manipulated.
You may feel a slight sting as the needle is inserted but this should be brief. You may also feel the muscle twitch if there is a trigger point.
Dry needling is safe when practiced by a trained therapist. Serious side effects are very rare. More common minor side effects that appear in 3-7% of people can include nausea, bleeding, bruising, drowsiness, fainting, fatigue, temperature, skin redness and an increase in symptoms. But all of these symptoms are transient.
There are contraindications to treatment which should always be discussed with you prior to any treatment.