Dry Needling May Sound Crazy. But it Worked For Me

In April of 2015, a third orthopedic surgeon told me knee surgery was inevitable. The thing was, no one knew what was wrong.

“We’ll just cut you open and take a look,” they said. Even if they didn’t understand the problem, the surgeons all thought surgery was the best solution.

Stubborn and unable to afford an expensive surgical procedure, I explored alternative approaches. That search led me to trigger point acupuncture with Boulder Acusport.

I walked into the clinic a skeptic with a limp. I walked out a believer with a strut. Since then, I’ve been treated with needles once a week, without fail.

Curing an injury by sticking needles into your skin might sound crazy, but it’s an increasingly popular treatment for many distance runners. The mechanism through which it works is a little murky. Still, many runners swear by it—including me. Here’s why.

What is it?

Dry needling arose partially out of scientific studies into acupuncture and injections of medication like cortisone and has since developed into its own area of treatment that’s growing in popularity.

With dry needling, a therapist inserts needles through the skin into areas of muscle pain known as trigger points. Because it targets trigger points, the practice is often called trigger point dry needling but it’s also known as intramuscular manual therapy. There’s no medication involved, hence the “dry” in the name. It uses the same solid filament needles as acupuncture instead of the syringes used in medical injections.

Discerning between acupuncture and dry needling often causes friction between the two fields. Dry needling is a western medicine treatment technique supported by research that provides relief for specific areas of the body. Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine, and treats the body as a whole by creating balance within the body.

Dry needling relieves pain by releasing trigger points of specific muscles. Some acupuncturists, like Ellis, take a similar approach to treating sports injuries called trigger point acupuncture that’s very similar to dry needling.

Does it work?

I’m obviously a believer after my personal experience. But let’s back that anecdotal evidence up with some proof.

A 2010 study followed four elite female volleyball players with shoulder injuries who were treated with dry needling treatments. Their month-long treatment coincided with frequent competitions and tough training. Researchers theorized that the needling treatments deactivated trigger points, better known as knots, in the muscle, allowing the players to practice and compete.

In addition, a 2007 study found that dry needling was an effective treatment for 44 people with patellar tendonitis.

How Does it Work?

With dry needling, therapists stick thin needles into tense bands of muscle. When the needles penetrate the bands, they help relax these bands and release the neurochemicals causing pain. According to Jim Heafner of Heafner Health, once the trigger point is released, the muscle quickly contracts and function normally.

Does it Hurt?

When the needle is inserted in the skin, there may be a slight contraction or twitch within the muscle that creates pain. Despite the discomfort, the spasms in the muscles are considered a good sign that a trigger point that’s likely causing pain in an injured area has been hit and released. After the treatment, there may be some soreness in the area for up to 48 hours.