Dry needling is a relatively new treatment option for physical therapists. Although it is not an approved intervention in all 50 states it is within the scope of physical therapist practice issued by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and becoming more common practice in some of our clinics. Dry needling has shown effectiveness for patients with everything from low back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain, hip pain, tension headaches and migraines, to fibromyalgia, plantar fasciitis and tendinitis.
Rehab Director and Clinical Instructor Lili W., PT works in one of the states, Iowa, where physical therapists are allowed to practice dry needling. Her clinical students typically observe her utilize the treatment technique on as many as five patients per day. She demonstrates and educates how to properly insert the thin filiform needles into the muscles to release shortened bends and decrease active or latent trigger points. Lili describes a trigger point to her students similar to “a Christmas tree light that keeps flickering.” When the needle is inserted it slows down that trigger point and relaxes the muscle, resolving the pain or muscle tension.
While dry needling is very effective for muscle pain, Lili says that like any other treatment technique there are possible post-treatment effects, albeit very rare, that should be considered by the patient before consent is given. Patients may experience soreness similar to an intense gym workout, fatigue, or they may land on the opposite spectrum and feel energized. Lili stresses to her students the importance of patient education prior to any therapy intervention, which includes emphasis on treatment benefits. As normal dry needling soreness typically wears off within 48 hours, some patients may experience full resolution of symptoms and not even require an additional treatment. Lili recalls one patient with plantar fasciitis, “After just one treatment she said she felt amazing!” That feedback makes the 200+ hours for Level II dry needling certification well worth it.
A common question heard is whether dry needling is like acupuncture. Modern dry needling is not traditional Chinese acupuncture. “Dry needling is a medical treatment that relies on medical diagnoses,” says Lili. Where PTs do assessments and look at pain patterns, Chinese acupuncturists follow meridians or channels and use traditional acupuncture theories.
Through full support by the APTA and state-level advocacy efforts, we hope all 50 states allow PTs to practice dry needling in the near future as it can help treat a number of patients that walk through our doors.
To learn more about dry needling in physical therapy, please visit the APTA website.