Dry Needling – breaking through needle phobia

by (Osteopath & Exercise Scientist)

As you may have noticed, dry needling has become increasingly popular over the last 10 years. You may have seen it advertised for use by your physiotherapist, osteopath and myotherapist/remedial massage therapist. But if you’ve walked into the clinic expecting a gentle and relaxing treatment, you may get a surprise when the business end of a sharp needle is suggested to easy your pain. So what is needling, and how can it help you?

Acupuncture needle used for dry needling rehabilitation medical treament for physiotherapy and pain due to physical injury in the hand of the doctor.

Important points

  • Dry needling is not acupuncture
  • It may help relieve myofascial pain
  • It should not feel like a “stab”
  • It is often used with other treatments to address the underlying cause of pain, or limitations as a result of pain


Dry needling is not acupuncture, as is frequently asked in our clinic. Although dry needling commonly uses the same needles as acupuncture, it targets very different areas of the body. Acupuncture traditionally is derived from Eastern medicine and basic principles are associated with needling within a “meridian channel” which is associated with the flow of energy throughout the body. The theory works upon the idea that disruption in energy flows through these channels causes pain and illness. Dry needling is an adaptation of acupuncture, more based in Western medicine, where needles target what you may hear us refer to as “trigger points”, or an area of tension in soft tissue. These points are characterized by a firm “band” within the muscle and sensory changes usually in the form of tenderness and/or referred pain (pain experienced in a different part of the body than to that of the original pain). Colloquially people tend to refer to these as “knots” in the muscle. The term dry is also to indicate that no substance is being injected in, or taken out of your body, unlike needles used for blood test and flu injections.

woman with pain
Dry needling aims to decrease your pain by stimulating these trigger points to down regulate, and treating the physical source of the pain. Although there are different techniques of needling which are dependent on your therapist’s education, it usually doesn’t feel too much like the traditional hospital stab. There may be some discomfort within the muscle however people tend to describe it more like the deep aching pain similar to that of a firm massage. This ache can last 24-48 hours after the needle has been removed depending on how “active” the trigger point has been, however this often settles to result in a reduction in the level of your original pain. Some people are even lucky enough not to experience this post-needle ache at all. To help ease this, relative rest, heat and keeping well hydrated are usually recommended. The other benefit for those of you that may have a needle phobia, is that dependent on the body site, you don’t always have to see the needle coming. Talk to your therapist if you would like them to keep the needles out of site if this is a problem for you.
It is important to remember that the needles only aid to help the physical source of pain, however are not treating the underlying cause of the pain, nor will address any limitations you may have acquired as a result of your pain. Where appropriate your therapist will guide you through the use of other tools such as exercises, postural correction and education to help you address these underlying causes and limitations. It is important that you address these as although you may feel amazing after your needling session, you are at risk of recurrence if you do not. Prevention is the aim of the game!
So for all you needle phobic people out there, I hope this has eased some of your anxiety and I hope you are pleasantly surprised when you experience the unique treatment that is dry needling. If you do indeed like your therapist, please also consider that you may be saving their thumbs for another 10 years so that they can continue to treat you in the future!

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