When sore muscles strike, there are times when your trusty foam roller just doesn't cut it. (Still, here's how to use one correctly.) And as much as you'd love having a full-time masseuse on standby, all you're really after is an efficient way to nix your post-workout aches, like, yesterday. If you're into alternative therapies—and needles don't make you faint—then you're in luck. An old-school treatment is making a comeback, and it just might relieve your peskiest pain problems in a fraction of the time. The solution: Dry needling.
What is dry needling?
Dry needling is an intervention designed to improve musculoskeletal pain (pain originating from your muscles and joints), says Matt Briggs, Ph.D., physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Unlike acupuncture, which involves inserting needles into one part of the body to influence other areas, dry needling is done directly at the pain site. (If you're curious about acupuncture, here are 10 things you probably didn't know about it.)
How does it work?
The process consists of small, monofilament needles that are inserted directly into the tissue and manipulated to make the muscle relax, ultimately relieving pain and improving function. Once the needle is inserted, an involuntary twitch often happens, and the twitch may be a sign that the treatment will be successful, according to a study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.
"We know that inserting a needle into the soft tissue can alter the way that your body perceives pain and potentially the way your muscles work," says Briggs. "This change occurs on a chemical and electrical level in animal models, but limited research has been conducted in humans."
Is it actually effective?
Anecdotally, yes. But because there's limited research available to prove it, there isn't a standard of care for dry needling yet, and many hospitals refuse to use it as a treatment. "Physical therapy practice is governed on a state level by the state's local practice act," explains Briggs. "Depending on the wording of the practice act, physical therapists may not be allowed to perform an intervention that penetrates the skin, which has led to some limitations in the ability to perform dry needling."
Currently, Briggs and his team are performing research to evaluate the clinical effectiveness of dry needling for this reason, including its impact on runner's knee. "It's been shown to be a safe intervention, and we feel that the more research confirms the benefits of dry needling, the more it will become a common practice," he says.
How do I know if dry needling is right for me?
If you're afraid of needles or allergic to metals, then it's obviously best to steer clear of this treatment option. But if you're not and you want to give it a whirl, Briggs recommends checking in with your doc to evaluate if it can be a helpful addition to your current treatment program—especially if you're pregnant, have a bleeding disorder or heart condition, or suspect that an infection or illness is the source of your pain. "We also don't recommend dry needling immediately following surgery," he says.
That said, when you have pain it's often referred to as a trigger point or a knot, explains Briggs. "If pressing on these knots in your muscles reproduces some familiar pain, it's likely that treating it with dry needling will help your symptoms." Dry needling has been shown to be helpful for people with knee arthritis, chronic low back pain, jaw pain, plantar fasciitis, and neck pain.
How do I find a legit practitioner?
The best way to determine if a physical therapist is fit to perform dry needling is to investigate his or her training and experience, à la Nancy Drew. "There isn't a universally accepted certification to be able to perform dry needling, and requirements for additional course work may vary depending on clinician type (physical therapist, physician, chiropractor, etc.), and the state in which they're licensed," says Briggs. (You can find out what your state requires here and here.) Briggs also recommends asking for referrals from previous patients to find out firsthand if you're comfortable with their physical therapist providing dry needling. Knowledge is power and, hopefully, pain-free.