Dry Needling: How and Why It Works

Guest Blogger Steven Griffin, DPT

We’ve all been there at some time or another. You’ve been staring at the computer for hours, slumped over in your chair and shoulders up to your ears, carrying all of the stress from the impending deadline at work or the test that you have to take tomorrow. You’ve noticed that a headache is starting to come on, but you shrug it off, attesting it to simply staring at a screen for too long. The only problem is that it doesn’t go away once you leave the computer, and you feel like you have tons of “knots” or “kinks” in the top of your shoulders and into your neck that need to be worked out.

Not a desk kind of person? Maybe you decided to break out the tennis racket for the weekend because the weather was so nice. You had a blast, but when you wake up Monday morning, you notice this dull aching pain that is radiating from your shoulder blade into your upper arm that you can’t quite pinpoint. You may even notice a feeling of tightness in the shoulder, or possibly even some tenderness if you poke around.

In either of these scenarios, it’s likely that your pain is being caused by myofascial trigger points. These trigger points are those painful “knots” in the muscles and can be caused by many things, like poor posture during standing, sitting, or sleeping; over-exertion; direct trauma; or protective spasms. Regardless of how they come about, trigger points can be a nagging source of pain and tightness for many people, and sometimes simply stretching isn’t enough to oust them.

Fortunately, there are treatments–in combination with proper movement–that can help alleviate the issue. One of these is trigger point dry needling. Dry needling involves the use of a very thin needle that directly enters into the trigger point. This causes a cascade of biochemical events in the muscle fiber and allows it to release, reducing pain.

What exactly happens in the trigger point during dry needling that causes it to release? The research isn’t conclusive, but the three main theories are:

  1. Increased neurotransmitter activity at the muscle causes prolonged contraction which causes sensitization of the tissues and therefore pain. Needling to the area increases the pH in the muscle fiber and decreases neurotransmitter activity, which then decreases the  muscle contraction and the pain.
  2. Prolonged muscle contraction causes decreased blood flow, which causes decreased tissue healing and therefore increased pain. Needling to the trigger point improves blood flow and, with it, tissue healing and pain.
  3. Sustained muscle contraction puts pressure on nerves which causes pain. Needling to the area helps release the contraction and therefore decreases pressure on nerves and decreases pain.

There’s nothing like a little science to get you amped up, is there?

You may be saying to yourself, “This definitely sounds like something that may help me, but where can I have it done? What can I expect?” Luckily for you, there are physical therapists who have had years of experience studying and treating the human body, as well as countless hours of practice with dry needling. Druid Hills Physical Therapy has an expert dry needling therapist on staff.

When having the procedure performed, you can expect a deep aching feeling  or pressure, and you may even feel the muscle twitch. That twitch response is the muscle fiber letting go of the sustained contraction that has you feeling your pain. Side effects are rare, but the two most common are muscle soreness (which should just feel like a workout type soreness) and minor bruising.

If you are suffering from trigger point pain, then dry needling can help you. Your physical therapist is an expert in analyzing movement and performing a comprehensive treatment of the musculoskeletal system. A combination of dry needling, other appropriate manual therapy techniques, and specific exercise should have you feeling much better in no time!

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