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Treating pain with dry needling therapy

​​​Medical approaches to achieving pain relief are many and include more than taking medication to reduce or stop the pain. 

Dry needling therapy, a manual therapy technique now more widely available, can be used to treat a variety of acute and chronic pain conditions for people of all ages.

Dry needling is a treatment technique that uses a thin needle inserted into the skin at a trigger point for pain. It's considered "dry," because no medication is used with the needle.

"Pain in one spot can be triggered by pain in a different place on the body," said Curt Riley​, a physical therapist at Marshfield Clinic Eau Claire Center and at the Clinic's Eau Claire Physical Therapy Center. "By finding and pushing on a trigger point, pain can be reproduced where it is occurring. Dry needling is effective at calming the pain and improving function."

Because the trigger point is related to the source of the muscular pain, it facilitates a pain cycle. Dry needling is intended to break that cycle by creating changes in the chemical levels in the painful muscle tissue.

"The muscle texture is different after the treatment. It's a change the patient may not at first notice," Riley said. "But particular movements that were difficult before the treatment will show improvement after, and patients notice this."

The approach seems similar to acupuncture, but the difference is fundamental.

"Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine," Riley said. "Dry needling focuses on muscular pain and pain patterns established by the trigger points. Physical therapists at Marshfield Clinic are trained in dry-needling techniques and are not licensed acupuncturists, nor do they practice acupuncture."

Dry needling can be used to treat people of all ages for a variety of acute and chronic musculoskeletal problems including:

  • Neck and low back pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Arm pain, such as tennis elbow or carpal tunnel
  • Headaches
  • Sciatica
  • Hamstring strains
  • Calf tightness or spasms

Treatment side effects may include mild soreness and occasional bruising. Dry needling is not recommended if you are on high-dose blood thinners, such as Coumadin®, or if you are at increased risk for infection because you have a blood disorder or are undergoing chemotherapy.

"Dry needling treatment is used in combination with other therapies to help reduce pain and improve function," Riley said. "Our physical therapists may include this approach with other manual techniques such as massage, exercise, strengthening and home exercises. The number of treatments depends on the condition being treated. Several visits are usually necessary for a positive treatment response to break the pain cycle."