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What is Dry Needling?

atlanta dr. danny performance physical therapy May 24, 2016


Hi, I’m Dr. Danny Matta DPT. I’m a Physical Therapist/Strength Coach and I’m the founder of Athletes’ Potential. Our company helps people just like you live higher quality, higher performance lives. That could be running your first 10K, competing in the CrossFit Games or getting rid of that lingering back pain so you can start getting back in shape! Dry needling is a technique we use frequently. I hope you have a better understanding of what it is after this article. Please email us if you have any other questions and we’d be glad to answer them for you.

When I was in the Army as a Physical Therapist, I remember first hearing about dry needling and thinking how crazy it sounded. I remember thinking PTs that were doing dry needling were searching for some kind of voodoo treatment that only had placebo effects. I actively stayed away from learning it because at the time I was a new graduate that thought I knew everything and was going to set the world on fire by getting everyone better.

Well, things changed one morning when I wrecked my back after a ruck march training session. I hurt my back so bad I could barely drive home and had to cancel all my patients that day. I threw everything at it that I knew and even enlisted the help of a few of my colleagues. Six months later, my back still hurt to pull weight from the ground, back squat or run (that was literally 80% of my training at the time!).

About that same time, a new physical therapist named Dr. Emmanuel Easterling moved to where I was stationed. Dr. E, as we called him, was a certified dry needling ninja. I reluctantly let him perform his voodoo on my back and I'm so glad that I did!

Within 2 days of Dr. E dry needling my back for the first time, I was running with no back pain. After the second time he did it, about a week later, I was squatting and deadlifting again. That was it- I was hooked and not only did I drink the Kool-Aid but I chugged it! I dove into dry needling head first and learned as much about it as possible.


So what does this technique do and why is it so effective? That’s a great question and the answer is we don’t fully know. Frankly, medicine is constantly evolving and we are always using our best evidence/knowledge at that time. Dry needling is the same way so as I answer this, understand there is probably way more to this than we even know.

First, dry needling involves placing small needles into strategic spots in the muscles. These spots were recognized and mapped out by a physician named Dr. Janet Travell, MD. She was an incredibly smart lady and was even John F. Kennedy’s personal physician during his presidency. Did you know he had chronic back pain? Yep, and what did she use to alleviate the back pain? You got it- dry needling!

The points Dr. Travell mapped were called trigger points. This trigger points in the muscle actually refer pain, not just where the “knots” in the muscle are, but to other areas of the body. Here’s an example of a trigger point in the upper trap. The X is where the trigger points are typically found. The dotted red areas are where the trigger points refer pain. Have pain on the inside of your shoulder blade? It could be just an irritated trigger point in your upper trap that dry needling would help fix really fast!


So how does a needle in a muscle cause pain to resolve quickly? There are a few theories on why this happens and I like to explain it in terms most of us understand:  Think of a trigger point like a glitch in your computer. Something isn’t working right and it’s causing other things to have issues as well. What fixes most computer problems? You got it- the restart!

Dry needling is like the restart for the musculoskeletal system. If we have a irritated trigger point and we put a needle in it, it resets. This reset occurs at the muscle with what’s called the wash out effect. This basically means that a needle in a muscle causes increased blood flow to the area. Increased blood flow causes increased oxygen/healthy blood to shunt to the area. Local inflammation/stagnant fluid gets “washed out” by this effect.

There has also been evidence to support the theory that dry needling has a strong effect on the nervous system. Basically, placing a needle in a trigger point causes local opioids (our bodies own natural painkillers) to be released. This also causes a positive pain relieving effect on the spinal cord. This means we can get a local and central pain relieving effect from this technique. 

Yes, most people are sore for a day. It feels like you worked out hard and the muscle is fatigued. In addition, you have to perform self-treatment work to really get the best benefit from dry needling. Picking the right home exercises and doing the right technique is where the magic is. 

  • Treat the right muscle, give the wrong homework, not the best results.
  • Treat the wrong muscle, give the right homework, not the best results.
  • Treat the right muscle, give the right homework, phenomenal results.

If you’ve been struggling with an injury or pain that’s stopping you from the activities you love, this might be a very effective treatment option for you. 

You have a choice. You don’t have to wake up every morning and hope that this is the day your shoulder/back/neck or whatever areas stops hurting. It’s sad how many people are in pain daily. It stops them from playing with their kids, walking 18 holes in golf, staying in shape and living overall happier lives. 

If you’re in the Atlanta area and you’d like to talk with one of our Doctors of Physical Therapy to find out if our approach is right for you, contact us. We’ll set up a free 10-minute phone consultation at your convenience.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Danny, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS​

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