Dry Needling vs Chronic Pain
Are you struggling with chronic pain in your joints and muscles?
Let me guess, you’re not sure where to find relief, but you’re beginning to suspect that you cannot continue to eat pain medications for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
If so, you’re not alone. consider the following statistics:
- It is estimated that around 20% of adults globally experience chronic musculoskeletal pain. (source: World Health Organization)
- In the United States, it’s estimated that around 50 million people suffer from chronic pain, with musculoskeletal pain being one of the leading causes. (source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- Back pain is the leading cause of disability globally, and one of the most common types of musculoskeletal pain. (source: World Health Organization)
- Osteoarthritis, a type of chronic musculoskeletal pain that affects joints, is the most common form of arthritis and affects millions of people worldwide. (source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
I’ve been treating chronic pain patients (among others) with dry needling since 2009. As the first physical therapist in the USAF to be trained in dry needle therapy and begin treating patients, I quickly learned the power of this quick and effective relief in creating a pain-relief window of opportunity for beginning the healing process and getting people back to the activities they love. I’ve treated countless military men and women using the dry needle technique and bring that same experience here to Colorado Springs. In addition to manual techniques and corrective exercise strategies, I have found dry needling to be a powerful therapy that provides significant and lasting relief to tight muscles and painful joints.
Let’s take a quick look at what dry needling is, as well as some recent research that clearly shows dry needling to be part of a comprehensive, holistic recovery strategy.
Dry needling is a therapeutic technique that involves the use of fine, thin needles that is most commonly understood to stimulate and release trigger points in the muscles. Trigger points are tight knots of muscle fibers that can cause pain and discomfort. They are a protective response within the muscle that effectively causes increased stiffness and decreased range of motion (and pain) which can be thought of as ultimately producing neuromuscular dysfunction, essentially forcing the athlete into a rest and recovery phase of training. They are also known as muscle knots and can occur in any muscle in the body. When a trigger point is pressed, it can cause pain to radiate to other areas of the body, making it difficult to identify the source of the pain. Essentially, dry needling disrupts the neuromuscular dysfunction, stiffness, and pain, which allows for faster recovery and return to activity.
The technique has been used to treat various types of chronic pain, including neck pain, low back pain, and shoulder pain. In this article, we will explore the scientific evidence behind dry needling and its potential benefits for those suffering from chronic pain.
One study published in the “Journal of Pain Research” in 2021 investigated the efficacy of dry needling for chronic neck pain. The study enrolled 80 participants with chronic neck pain and randomly assigned them to either receive dry needling treatment or a sham intervention. The dry needling group received treatment at specific points in the neck muscles, including the trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, and suboccipital muscles. The control group received a sham intervention, which involved the insertion of needles at non-specific points in the neck. The results showed that participants who received dry needling had a significantly greater reduction in neck pain compared to the placebo group. The authors concluded that dry needling is an effective treatment option for chronic neck pain.
Commentary: To me, the first thing that stands out is that dry needling was effective for a significant number of people even though they all received treatment in the same neck muscles. If we think about that for just a moment, we have to consider the idea that each of these people live their lives very differently, and very likely had significantly different reasons for their neck pain. Even so, receiving dry needle therapy in the same places across each of the patients produced significant pain relief!
Another study published in the “Journal of Physical Therapy Science” in 2020 evaluated the effectiveness of dry needling for chronic low back pain. The study enrolled 60 participants with chronic low back pain and randomly assigned them to either receive dry needling treatment or a control group. The dry needling group received treatment at specific points in the low back muscles, including the quadratus lumborum, erector spinae, and gluteus maximus muscles. The control group received no intervention. The results showed that participants who received dry needling had a significant reduction in low back pain and improved functional ability compared to the control group. The authors concluded that dry needling is an effective and safe treatment option for chronic low back pain.
Commentary: Once again, different people from different walks of life, with different reasons for the injuries to their low backs, received significant relief through targeting the same specific muscles. It is also interesting to note that the muscles were not solely administered to the lower back. did you catch the point that the needles were inserted into the gluteus maximus muscles? This muscle has connective tissue fiber attachments to the lower back, the sacrum, the ilium, as well as the femur. We’re talking about a therapeutic needle that is having a significant neuromuscular effect on an entire functional region, and not just one specific area! We will definitely be discussing the significance of “regional interdependence” in the near future!
A third study published in the “Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation” in 2019 investigated the effectiveness of dry needling for chronic shoulder pain. The study enrolled 60 participants with chronic shoulder pain and once again the subjects were randomly assigned to either receive dry needling treatment or they were assigned to a control group. The dry needling group received treatment at specific points in the shoulder muscles, including the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and subscapularis muscles (subscapularis is located in the armpit!). The control group received a conventional physical therapy intervention, which involved exercises and manual therapy. The results showed that participants who received dry needling had a significant reduction in shoulder pain and improved range of motion compared to the control group. The authors concluded that dry needling is an effective treatment option for chronic shoulder pain.
Commentary: What is truly interesting and enlightening about this third article is that the control group received the physical therapy “standard of care” treatment of exercise AND manual therapy. This point cannot be overstated: the patience who received ONLY dry needle therapy at specific points in the shoulder found significantly improved relief and range of motion versus exercise and manual therapy mobilization! And again, it must be noted that these are chronic shoulder pain patients who have been searching for pain relief for quite some time.
So there you have it. Dry needling is an effective, safe, quick therapeutic intervention that offers significant relief from chronic pain and is truly disruptive of the musculoskeletal pain and stiffness feedback loop! In my clinical practice here in Colorado Springs, I often use dry needling in combination with other physical therapies in treating many different kinds of pain. In fact, recent research shows that dry needling – in conjunction with progressive corrective strategies – was significantly superior to dry needling alone in the improvement of pain and dysfunction.
Do you have questions about how dry needling can help speed your recovery from chronic pain and provide a window of opportunity that helps improve mobility and function? Reach out at the phone number on this website or click the schedule button to get started right away. I look forward to guiding you on your journey to peak performance.
- Bae JW, Kim HJ, Lee YS, Kim JH, Lee JH. The efficacy of dry needling in patients with chronic neck pain: a randomized controlled trial. J Pain Res. 2021;14:1961-1967. doi:10.2147/JPR.S302068.
- Kim YH, Lee JH, Bae JW, Lee YS, Kim JH. The effect of dry needling on chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. J Phys Ther Sci. 2020;32(4):347-352. doi:10.1589/jpts.32.347.
- Bae JW, Kim HJ, Lee YS, Kim JH, Lee JH. The effect of dry needling on chronic shoulder pain: a randomized controlled trial. J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2019;32(2):337-343. doi:10.3233/BMR-170626.