Sustainable health isn’t just about crushing the hardest workouts or following a balanced diet. A well-rounded approach to wellness includes cardio, strength training, nutrition, and — as I’ll discuss today — recovery.
Dry needling is a relatively new treatment used to treat muscle soreness and chronic injuries. Dry needling is used by physical therapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and medical doctors to help athletes and other individuals recover faster. Those who make dry needling a regular part of their recovery process swear by it, claiming it repairs and relaxes muscles faster than foam rolling or deep tissue massages.
If you are considering “getting needled” for the first time, you may be wondering, “What is dry needling?” Below, I dive into what dry needling is, the health benefits of dry needling, and how to make it a regular part of your recovery routine.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Dry needling is only meant to be done with an experienced medical professional, such as a physical therapist. I highly recommend finding a referral to a trusted PT who makes dry needling a regular part of their practice.
What Is Dry Needling?
Dry needling involves inserting long, thin, filiform needles through the skin and into the muscle. Based on photos alone, dry needling looks similar to acupuncture needles, but the two techniques are very different.
Dry needling goes deeper into the soft tissue. A physical therapist will insert needles into myofascial trigger points within your muscles. This is where damaged muscle tissue has created physical knots, which need to be released (called myofascial release).
When a needle hits a trigger point, it causes a local twitch response in the muscle (it can feel like a mini electric shock). The needles will either stay in your muscles for several minutes, or the therapist will rapidly move the needle in and out. This encourages the knot to relax and the muscle to reset itself.
The American Physical Therapy Association recognizes dry needling as “a growing trend, with growing support.” Because the technique is so new, research is still growing — but firsthand accounts say it’s incredibly effective, and shows almost immediate effect. If you have a friend or teammate who has done dry needling, chances are they swear by the practice.
How Does Dry Needling Work?
Dry needling is a recovery treatment using myofascial release. Myofascial release is used to break up knots and muscle tension formed in connective tissue. This is used to treat knee pain, plantar fasciitis (which causes heel pain), low back pain, neck pain, achilles tendonitis, carpal tunnel (a numbness or tingling sensation in your hand or arm), and other muscle pain caused by injuries.
Other recovery techniques, including foam rolling, muscle flossing, and deep tissue massage, all work using myofascial release. In order to understand dry needling, you need to understand why sore muscles and injuries happen in the first place.
When you work out, tiny fibers in your muscles physically break apart. When they fuse themselves back together — a process known as muscle hypertrophy — your muscles grow larger and stronger. Unfortunately, sometimes muscles fuse back together in irregular patterns, creating knots that are quite painful. This happens due to overuse, trying new exercises, or chronic injuries.
Advocates of dry needling state that the technique is more effective than other forms of myofascial release. Because the needle is inserted directly into the knotted trigger points, the muscle will relax (and the muscle fibers will move back into their correct pattern), faster than if you just ran over the knot with a lacrosse ball.
What Are the Benefits of Dry Needling?
As stated earlier, dry needling is a relatively new practice and research is still growing. However, thus far science supports the effectiveness of the technique.
It Could Be More Effective Than Other Treatments
In one study conducted by the NIH, dry needling was shown to be more effective than other types of myofascial release therapy in treating chronic pain related to injuries. In addition, dry needling showed improvements in body pain, sleep quality, anxiety and depression, and fatigue. In some patients, dry needling was shown as an effective treatment for fibromyalgia.
It Can Decrease Pain in the Short and Long Term
Another study conducted by the NIH shows that dry needling can improve pain in both the short and long term. In addition, the study noted that different techniques for dry needling proved effective (an “in and out” technique, where the needle is removed then reinserted, versus a static technique where the needles remain in the tissue for 10-30 minutes).
It Can Treat Injuries in Less Time
If you speak to an athlete who has done dry needling, chances are they’ll tell you this: Dry needling is like getting two physical therapy appointments in one.
If you have been foam rolling every single day, booking massages, and icing regularly, yet can’t seem to shake a chronic injury, it might be time to try dry needling.
According to researchers at the NIH, dry needling is “strongly recommended for myofascial pain therapy in order to resume a patient's normal life rapidly, thus saving medical and social resources.” Studies show that dry needling is a far faster road to recovery than any aforementioned manual therapy techniques — which can save you time, money, and frustration.
How to Make Dry Needling Part of Your Recovery Routine
I fully support using dry needling as a recovery technique. I dry needle about once every other month, which proves to be extremely effective. But it shouldn’t be your only recovery tool. While research is still growing, most physical therapists recommend dry needling 1-2 times per week, max.
Everybody responds differently to dry needling. However, for injuries you can’t seem to shake, it’s certainly worth a try. In the meantime, you should continue to ice, foam roll, stretch, and floss. In addition, do your pre-hab by strengthening certain muscle groups to correct imbalances and movement impairments (i.e., one of the main reasons you get injured in the first place).
With the help of our model of the 4 legs of fitness, we emphasize the importance of keeping all four areas balanced. Like a chair becoming unstable — and probably unusable — if one leg is shortened or removed, it puts undue stress on the other four legs.
The same happens with your fitness and long-term health. Even the most balanced diet and most efficient workouts won’t cure a chronic injury. To keep yourself healthy enough to continue your workouts, you have to be committed to your recovery. At 4legsfitness.com, I recommend many forms of recovery such as massages, stretching, sauna, meditation, cold showers, foam rolling, breathing exercises (I especially like the Wim Hof method), flossing, and (under the guidance of a professional) dry needling.
Consult a Physical Therapist to Start Dry Needling
Dry needling is a myofascial release technique where thin needles are inserted into the muscle tissue. The needles are used to stimulate muscle knots, causing them to relax and release.
While dry needling is a new treatment option, athletes, physical therapists, and scientists agree it is a fast, effective way to provide pain relief and treat chronic injuries. However, a well-rounded treatment plan should not depend on dry needling treatment alone. Depending on your injury, you should only dry needle one or two times per week maximum, and stay devoted to foam rolling, icing, and rest in between appointments.
Recovery is one of the most important — yet often ignored — pillars of fitness. To be a better athlete, it’s important to stay diligent about recovery work when we’re healthy, instead of waiting for a chronic injury to happen. You want to recover effectively so you can optimise your performance, fitness and health.
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