Most people are familiar with acupuncture, which uses needles to relieve pain and improve energy flow. At first glance, dry needling resembles acupuncture. Both methods use short, fine “filiform” needles that don’t inject any substances into the body (hence the term dry needling). However, unlike acupuncture, dry needling is tailored to the individual at the time of the session, and the same person may have a different pattern of dry needling during different visits.
The goal of dry needling is to reduce muscle pain and tension. Dry needle practitioners insert needles into myofascial “trigger points,” which are areas of knotted, hard muscle that cause pain and/or disrupt normal function. Putting pressure on these points often elicits a “jump sign,” which is when someone feels sudden, intense pain and jumps or moves involuntarily to escape the pain. Pressure may also elicit a local twitch response in muscles, which is caused when already tense muscles contract further.
Non-trigger point dry needling can be done to treat larger areas of myofascial pain, or to address nerve-related problems that increase pain sensitivity. Dry needling is effective for anyone experiencing persistent myofascial and nerve pain. Runners who want to keep running love it!
The exact mechanism through which dry needling works is still an area of active research, but one theory is that needle insertion mechanically stimulates the muscle fibers, increases local blood flow, promotes the release of pain-relieving neurotransmitters, and activates healing responses. As the needle penetrates the skin, fascia, and muscle, underlying myofascial trigger points are released and pain and tenderness are reduced.
An overlooked mechanism of dry needling may be how it interrupts tension in the fascia, which is a continuous sheet of tissue that lies between our skin and muscles. Until recently, fascia wasn’t given much thought as a source of muscle pain and tightness, but it’s now clear that fascia can significantly impact how we move, for better or for worse. Fascia normally glides over muscle, but chronic muscle tension can cause the fascia to adhere to the muscle, which limits range-of-motion and causes pain and stiffness.
Myofascial pain can be very challenging to treat, and people with chronic myofascial pain often go through several doctors and try various pain medications that leave them groggy or feeling “drugged.” Many people who have struggled with chronic pain report that dry needling transformed their lives by giving them back the ability to participate in the things they love to do.
Whether through pounding pavement or traversing trails, runners put lots of wear and tear on their bodies. As miles add up, pain, fatigue, and weakness can interfere with runs. In addition, chronically tight muscles create myofascial trigger points that further inhibit normal biomechanics. Fascia can also be a key trigger for some common types of running-related pain, notably plantar fasciitis.
In recent years, many runners have adopted dry needling as a standard component in their training and recovery programs, with high success rates. Dry needling is not associated with much (if any) downtime, so it’s a procedure that can be done throughout training.
Runners are notorious for wanting to run through pain, which may increase their risk for serious injuries that could put an end to their running. Regular dry needling sessions can help a runner understand if their pain is the result of normal muscle development or something more serious. Consistent pain that isn’t improved with dry needling may be suggestive of a more serious underlying cause.
Dry needling has been effectively used to help several common issues faced by runners, including:
One theory for why dry needling is so effective for runners stems from how muscles respond to consistent submaximal exercise. It has been proposed that the process of breaking down and building up muscle fibers through repetitive exercise is associated with changes in the chemical makeup of the muscle. This leads to a persistent pro-inflammatory state that increases pain perception and reduces pain thresholds.
Dry needling may relieve this kind of muscle pain not only by releasing trigger points, but by creating a tiny focal injury that recruits new cell types to the area. These new cells restore the normal chemical environment of the muscle and reduce the availability of chemicals that cause pain sensation. They also promote active tissue remodeling, which speeds recovery.
It’s important to find a dry needle practitioner who is licensed and experienced. Dry needling is very safe, but the ability to accurately palpate myofascial trigger points and understand how they relate to overall anatomy and kinesthesiology underlies the value of dry needling. An experienced practitioner will have a more intuitive feel for your unique anatomy and trigger point-related dysfunction, resulting in improved outcomes.
A typical dry needling session will last between 20-30 minutes and may include anywhere from 5 to 20 needles, depending on the size of the area to be treated. After identifying a trigger point, your practitioner will insert a sterile, disposable needle into the trigger point. Once the needle has been inserted, it will remain in place for between 30 seconds to a few minutes, or even longer in some cases. Some practitioners will reinsert the same needle multiple times or rotate the needle when it is inserted into the muscle; this is called dynamic needling.
Even a single dry needling session can reduce pain and restore function, but many people will require multiple sessions to get maximal benefit. In addition, while dry needling alone can significantly improve pain, the most effective therapeutic strategies include other treatment modalities. A holistic physiotherapy plan that includes strength- and stability- building exercises, stretching, and soft tissue mobilization through massage will deliver the quickest and most long-lasting results.
Contact our crew at Skye Health to learn how dry needling can help you overcome pain and get back to your normal level of activity.