Dry Needling – What it is, What it is Not

It sounds scary, right? Why on earth would someone stick a needle in their body? We used to think the same thing. However, we saw the results that other physical therapists were getting with dry needling and we were intrigued. We became trained, had needling done to us for our own injuries, and started using it in the clinic. 

Our outcomes were undeniable. Those we used needling with got better faster than those we just used soft tissue (massage) on. We even had a few patients who were not getting better that responded. Because of that, we are now big proponents of dry needling when it is used in the appropriate context.

We want to back up one step though. We know there is a lot of misinformation out there about dry needling. Before we talk about what this procedure is, we will start by defining what it is not.

What Dry Needling is Not

Useful All The Time

Dry needling is not necessary for every individual. There are plenty of people who are scared of needles or simply do not want to be poked. That is perfectly fine. In about 99% of cases, we can still get the same outcomes without needling, but it often gets us there faster.

A “Magic Bullet”

Needling is not a “magic bullet.” You do not get needled for a few sessions and simply become “better.” Dry needling is one part of a comprehensive plan of care that is individually designed to target a specific injury. Very rarely does needling work without altering or removing the movement that caused the discomfort in the first place. Reinforcing the new movements (a.k.a. home exercises) is crucial to restoring normal movement, improving strength, or improving mobility. Needling removes discomfort, but without reinforcement of this, discomfort often returns.


Lastly, needling is not acupuncture. Both utilize the same needles but in a different manner. Acupuncture is about working with the meridians of the body and restoring the balance of qi. Dry needling is based in scientific research and is about causing physiological changes inside a muscle to improve pain. The changes that occur in a muscle include but are not limited to increased blood flow, decreased spontaneous electrical activity (decreased pain from trigger points), improved mobility, decreased concentrations of chemicals that send a “pain” message to the brain, and decreased compression of surrounding muscles and nerves.

dry needling
dry needling

What Dry Needling Is

Now that we have touched on what dry needling is not, we will get into what it is. To do this, we are going to answer some of the commonly asked questions we get about this topic. We will start with the most commonly asked question we get – 

How does it work?

A physical therapist inserts a very thin needle into muscle. When the needle hits a ‘trigger point’ or a tender spot in the muscle, it causes this part of the muscle to fully contract and relax. This allows the tender area, which was previously partially contracted, to fully relax. It also releases powerful anti-inflammatory molecules that help the pain go away.

Will it hurt?

How much discomfort is experienced very much depends upon the individual as people process things differently. Some people like the way it feels, others find it is uncomfortable, and some are indifferent. A common description we get is that “it hurts so good.” 99% of people who receive needling say any discomfort that they may feel is worth it to eliminate their current pain.

How did someone come up with dry needling?

Dry needling was used as a placebo in cortisone injection studies. A true placebo for a cortisone injection requires a needle to be inserted into the tissue. Researchers found that they were getting the same results with the cortisone as they did without the cortisone and dry needling was created.

Can all physical therapists do this?

No. To perform dry needling, a physical therapist is required to undergo additional training. In order to satisfy this requirement, Dr. Sarah has taken multiple courses through Evidence in Motion, one of the most reputable continuing education providers for this topic. Additionally, she has been needled in all muscles that she is certified to perform needling for.

Do I have to receive dry needling?

Not at all. Because everyone is unique, needling is not helpful for everyone. When it is indicated, Dr. Sarah will share that information and have a discussion about how needling can be used to improve your pain. Because we believe you should be in control of your body, you will be the one who decides if you are okay with dry needling being performed. Your decision will guide treatment and you will never be forced or convinced to do something you are not comfortable with.

Wrapping Things Up

To sum things up, that is a quick overview of what dry needling is and what it is not. We hope this information was helpful for you. If you are curious about what diagnoses this works best for, check out this blog post

grace together

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