You’ve gotten acupuncture a handful of times (it even got rid of that awful migraine you had last year). But is dry needling the same thing? Nope. Dry needling is a much newer concept that involves sticking needles into tight muscles to knock out soreness. It sounds a little scary (and might not be a great idea to try if you’re one of those people who hates getting shots at the doctor), and truthfully, it’s actually supposed to hurt a bit. But is it worth the pain? We investigate this prickly situation.
What Is ‘Dry Needling’... and Is It as Scary as It Sounds?
Why is it called “dry needling,” anyway?
Think about the last time you got a flu shot (which we hope was this season!). In order to receive the vaccine, you had to have a hypodermic needle full of the concoction (a liquid) inserted into your muscle. But with dry needling, a filiform needle is used because there’s no liquid (or anything else) injected into you. It’s quite literally a dry needle.
OK, so how does it work?
Like acupuncture, dry needling reduces pain and discomfort. While acupuncture is focused on energy and a person’s “chi” via pressure points all over the body, dry needling is used on specific body parts that are the issue. For example, maybe you tweaked your hamstring while running last week and want to give dry needling a try because now it feels super tight and painful. A physical therapist places needles directly in and around your hamstring to try and restore blood flow to the area and loosen up knotted muscles. Dry needling can be helpful for anyone who’s dealing with sports injuries, fibromyalgia and other aches and pains.
“These knots are believed to be the cause of muscular pain and contraction and the needling can reduce the pain by helping the muscle to retrieve its regular length,” says Dr. Jenelle Kim, an expert in Chinese medicine and the founder and formulator of JBK Wellness Labs in San Diego. Unlike with acupuncture, there haven’t been many studies done on the effectiveness of dry needling since it’s still considered a newer procedure, as the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy noted in 2017. Researchers involved in that paper said that they didn’t believe dry needling to be any more—or less—effective than other traditional physical therapy treatments, leaving the option to us.
What can I expect at a dry needling appointment? (And, um, is it going to hurt?)
We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Dry needling is probably going to hurt and might actually be more effective if you have an uncomfortable experience. Remember, these are needles, and they’re being pushed into your muscles. Acupuncture is typically painless because it uses smaller needles and they’re tapped into the surface of your skin. But dry needling is effective when the needle stimulates your muscles.
“Dry needling is most effective when local twitch responses are produced within the muscle,” Kim says. “After the muscle finishes twitching, the spontaneous electrical activity subsides, and pain and dysfunction decrease dramatically.” Kim adds that many people will bleed a little bit where the needle pierces the skin, they’re typically sore during the procedure, and bruising, fatigue and even fainting aren’t uncommon.
This sounds like the answer to my sore back’s prayers. Where can I get dry needling?
Here’s the tricky part. Licensed acupuncturists have to go through at least 3,000 hours of training, Kim tells us, before they’re allowed to work with acupuncture patients. On the other hand, dry needling only requires some 20 to 50 hours of training for certification, but it’s most commonly performed by physical therapists. Outside of physical therapy, some alternative medicine practices might say that they’re “licensed” to practice it, but there’s technically no standard required by the governments of most states for dry needling.
As always, check with your doctor to get her opinion and see if she can point you in the direction of an experienced physical therapist.