Dry Needling: What is it and Why Does it Work?

What is dry needling?

Dry needling is a treatment used by physical therapists to reduce pain, inactivate muscle trigger points and restore functional mobility. Providers must have a special certification and training in order to provide this treatment. It is called “dry needling” because the needle penetrates the skin but it does not contain any liquid medication. The needle is a sterile, thin monofilament similar to those used in acupuncture.


Dry needling differs from acupuncture in several ways. Acupuncture comes from Eastern medicine which focuses on opening meridian channels in the body to encourage the flow of qi or vital life energy. Dry needling comes from the Western medicine philosophy which is rooted in evaluating pain patterns and movement dysfunctions.  Before you have dry needling the therapist will do a comprehensive orthopedic and posture assessment to determine if dry needling is appropriate for you. Additionally, dry needling is typically done with other physical therapy interventions as part of a broader treatment plan to reduce pain and restore functional movement.

What is dry needling typically used to treat?

Dry needling can be used to treat the following conditions:

  • Headaches
  • Neck pain
  • Muscle tension/spasm
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Tennis elbow/Golfer’s elbow
  • Achilles tendinopathy
  • Low back pain, sciatica
  • Myofascial pain

How does dry needling work?

Dry needling is thought to positively impact tissues through three different pathways.

  • Biomechanical effects – Manipulating a dry needle in muscle or connective tissue causes the fibroblasts to spread out and remodel the tissue. Fibroblasts are the most common type of cells found in the connective tissue.


  • Nervous system effects – Inserting a dry needle into tissue produces an immediate activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This alters the brain’s interpretation of signals from the body and changes the way that it responds.


  • Endocrine effects – Using electro-dry needling (dry needling with electrical stimulation) has been found to increase the body’s level of beta-endorphine, a naturally occurring opioid that decreases the sensation of pain. This results in a decrease in the level of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) in the circulatory system.