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Dry Needling: What Is it and What Does it Do?

June 03, 2022

For people with nagging pain or movement impairments that haven't been resolved with traditional treatments, dry needling is a new technique that might provide much-needed relief. Dry needling is commonly practiced by physical therapists to provide relief for muscular pain, stiffness and headaches, and can also be used to improve flexibility and range of motion. Considered "dry" because there is no medication in or on the needles themselves, dry needling involves a very fine filament needle inserted into tissue to relieve pain and improve function. “Dry needling is performed by a variety of healthcare practitioners including physical therapists. This form of therapy is a skilled intervention that has grown in popularity and usage,” said Brendan McGreevy, physical therapist with the Hartford HealthCare Rehabilitation Network. Although it might cause some discomfort, McGreevy notes that dry needling is not as painful as it sounds. “The thin and flexible build of the needle allows it to be pushed through the skin rather than cutting into it, which leads to less discomfort for most areas,” McGreevy said. “For perspective, the needles are so thin you could fit 10 dry needles into one flu shot needle. As one is inserted into the skin, it can go deep into the muscle, so some do report some temporary discomfort. Other times, discomfort can initially be felt while working with the muscle.” Because dry needling looks similar to acupuncture, many people wonder what the difference is between the two. “This is probably the most common question I receive,” McGreevy said. “At first glance, both acupuncture and dry needling look the same since both methods utilize the same type of needles, and both aim to improve pain and well-being.” The key difference is that acupuncture, based on traditional Chinese medicine, is thought to improve the body's natural energy balance, while dry needling is based on a western medicine approach and trigger point theory, and seeks to relieve muscle pain and improve flexibility, range of motion and function. Acupuncture has been around for centuries, but dry needling is a newer practice.