Dry needling, what is it? Does it work? Who does it benefit? Is it acupuncture? Host Dr. Scott Jablonka, Carolina Movement Doc, dives deep into dry needling and breaks down the common groups who benefit.

Dry needling is the insertion of a thin monofilament needle into muscles, tendons, ligaments, scar tissue, subcutaneous fascia, etc. In Dr. Jablonka’s experience as a physical therapist, he has found dry needling helps many of his patients. It is a process that benefits everyone including crossfitters, triathletes, swimmers, runners, lifters, cyclists, barbers, hair stylists and mechanics. This is not acupuncture, though the two use the same needles.

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When you hear “dry needling,” you may be cringe. The term “dry needling” evokes strong negative emotions, like nails on a chalkboard. However, you shouldn’t let this stop you from exploring this process.

Dr. Jablonka is a proponent of dry needling and wishes he had discovered it earlier in his career. It has changed how he treats his patients. He credits it to becoming a more effective physical therapist.

What is dry needling?

Definition: Dry needling is the insertion of a thin monofilament needle into muscles, tendons, ligaments, scar tissue, subcutaneous fascia, etc.

How big are dry needling needles?

Dry needle circumference

The circumference of the needle is tiny, especially compared to the one doctors use to draw blood. It is about 1/8 the size. You can hardly see the needle; it is so thin. The needle is not hollow in the center. The needle contains no medicine, which is where the term “dry” comes from.

Dry needle length

The length may vary from very short to relatively long (approximately 4 inches) for the bigger muscle groups.

Fun Fact: A dry needle is so thin,  a mere 1/8th the size of a needle used to draw blood.

If you are scared, you shouldn’t be.

Because it’s so thin, it won’t hurt nearly as bad as your typical hypodermic needle.

Usage

One popular usage of dry needling is through “trigger points.” It’s the focus of most articles found on the internet. The needles are inserted into knots in your muscle. The desired response is for the muscle to twitch. Essentially, your neural tissue are stimulated and can help muscle tissue and connective tissue for a variety of things.

The ultimate goal is to completely mitigate pain, taking care of it from a neural muscular-skeletal standpoint. Treating the whole neural path may help reduce pain.

electro dry needling

Benefits of dry needling

There aren’t a lot of negatives, according to Dr. Jabolonka. Make sure the person performing the process knows what they are doing. You don’t want anyone sticking you haphazardly as this will not give you the desired effects.

The benefits, however, are tremendous.

There is a biomechanical effect, a chemical effect, an endocrinological effect, and a vascular effect. What does this fancy terminology mean?

Fun Fact: Dry needling improves blood flow, tissue connectivity, muscle performance, and relaxes the muscle. It improves micro-circulation around the affected area. Inserting the needles into the body and adding an electrical current is the most bang for your buck you can get. Dr. Jablonka highly recommends this process because it increases beta-endorphins (which decreases pain) and decreases cortisol, a stress hormone. The effect is almost immediate!

Dry needling for knee osteoarthritis

Definition: According to Orthoinfo, Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the knee. It is a degenerative,”wear-and-tear” type of arthritis that occurs most often in people 50 years of age and older, although it may occur in younger people, too. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage in the knee joint gradually wears away.

One major area of study is knee osteoarthritis. And it’s a subject that piques Dr. Jablonka’s interest because it is one many of his clients suffer. He sought something non-pharmaceutical, non-surgical, and less invasive. Rather than directing his patients directly to knee surgery, he discusses dry needling with them.

Knee Surgery

The research shows the insertion of needles in and around the knee joint improves micro-circulation around the particular knee joint. Good blood flow to the area draws good cells like neutrophils. Dry needling can help stop the deterioration. In some instances, research has shown it almost reverses the bone-on-bone appearance on the knee joint.

Dry needling is not acupuncture

Definition: According to the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain.

While there are some similarities, dry needling is not acupuncture. Acupuncture is based on balance and restoring the proper flow of energy in the body. Needles are left in place for 15-30 minutes. The goal is to treat internal ailments, like digestive problems.

Who does it help?

It helps everyone.

Dry needling helps people in pain. It has provided positive effects with Dr. Jablonka’s patients. These effects typically show up after 1-2 sessions. Many of his patients come in monthly for treatment.

Four groups that benefit

Dr. Jablonka’s patients who benefit from dry needling are (1) crossfitters and lifters, (2) runners, triathletes and swimmers, (3) cyclists, and (4) barbers, hairstylists, and mechanics.

Dry needling for crossfitters & lifters

crossfitters

Lifters tend to have shoulder and lower cervical spine issues. In addition, areas to target for dry needling in crossfitters and lifters include:

  • upper and mid traps
  • parascapular region
  • rhomboid
  • subscapularis
  • the backside of the shoulders, especially posterior delts
  • infraspinatus
  • teres minor
  • elbows
  • lower back

Dry needling for runners, triathletes, and swimmers

This group tends to have foot issues, knee issues, and lower back issues, especially as they increase mileage.

Known areas of pain that can be treated by dry needling in runners, triathletes, and swimmers include:

  • the bottom of their foot – plantar fasciitis
  • the calf, particularly the soleus calf and posterior tib
  • lateral hip like for IT Band Syndrome
  • lower back
  • lumbar paraspinal
  • quadratus lumborum

Dry needling for cyclists

mountain biker

Cyclists tend to hunch over their handlebar adding pressure to their back and upper extremities. Cyclists dry needling areas of focus include:

  • hamstrings
  • lower and mid-back
  • cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine
  • forearms
  • elbows

Dry needling for barbers, hairstylists, and mechanics

hair stylist

These folks do a lot of work with their hands up in unnatural positions for long periods. Dry needling in barbers, hair stylists and mechanics tend to focus on:

  • upper trap
  • cervical
  • suboccipital

What ailments does it help?

Reasons a person may use dry needling include:

  • low back pain
  • carpal tunnel
  • plantar fasciitis
  • neck pain
  • headaches
  • shoulder pain
  • knee pain
  • hip pain
  • elbow epicondylitis – medial and lateral (golfer and tennis elbow)
  • anywhere there is a muscle, tendon, and ligament

Dry needling can also help:

  • restore blood flow
  • improve muscle function
  • improve range of motion
  • tissue elasticity will be on point

There is positive meaningful change almost immediately for most people. Dr. Jablonka has not had a session that didn’t end with the patient feeling better.

Who does not benefit from dry needling?

This is not for everyone. Those who may not be a good candidate include:

  • people who suffer from an abnormal bleeding tendency
  • people with vascular disease
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • diabetics
  • frail patients
  • epileptic patients
  • children
  • pregnant people
  • people with a fear of needles

If you fall under any of these categories, alternate sources of relief for your pain should be explored. In some instances, you may proceed with caution. This is something that should be discussed on an individual basis.

Dry needling success stories

Chronic headaches

A woman in her late 40s suffered from chronic headaches. For 7+ years she tried everything including reiki, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, chiropractors, pharmaceuticals, and injections. Nothing helped. She came to see Dr. Jablonka and tried electro dry needling with manipulation.

After 2 sessions she had an 80% improvement in her symptoms.

She had been putting off a cross-country trip for years because she couldn’t sit in a car. She is getting that opportunity to go on that trip after just 2 sessions. Even Dr. Jablonka was impressed. He thought it would take months.

Runner with hip pain

A guy in his late 30s with IT Band Syndrome came in. On and off for 2 years, he has had this pain and it happened consistently around mile 2. He tried deep tissue massage, foam roll, a lacrosse ball, and massage guns. Nothing helped. So Dr. Jablonka ran tests and found he had weakness on side of his hip.

One treatment of dry needling and he ran 8 miles. He only stopped from being tired. He never ran that far before. The pain flared up a few months later and now he comes once a month to make sure it doesn’t come back.

Flexible yogi

A woman in her late 40s had a nasty calf issue. Another therapist tried to stretch her calf. Flexibility wasn’t the issue. Dr. Jablonka ran tests and her strength was good.

So they turned to dry needling (only 4 needles total were used). After 3 treatments she was completely pain-free.

Carolina Movement Doc

If you are in the Charlotte, NC area and want to get dry needling done, come see Dr. Jablonka at the Carolina Movement Doc. Anyone else can reach him online. He loves discussing the science of pain and anything related to movement.

Want more movement tips from Dr. Scott Jablonka? Listen to older episodes of our Move More Podcast.