By Mandi Fetters

Dry needling caught my attention at a physical therapy conference four years ago. I was in a packed banquet room, squeezed in between my colleagues, eyes wide, as the speaker explained a then mysterious treatment: dry needling. Dry needling is a treatment in which a very thin needle (so thin it waves in the wind, needle phobs) is inserted into the skin and underlying tissue with the goal of changing pain patterns or relaxing contracted muscles. The side effects are minimal and the treatment can be done in the physical therapy setting.

A minimally invasive treatment that quickly treats chronic musculoskeletal issues, has negligible side effects, and is accessible to almost everyone? Dry needling sounded too good to be true. To end the discussion, the speaker noted “more research needs to be done on dry needling before we can deem this an effective treatment.” Well great, it was too good to be true.

Fast forward to 2015. I have my certification in dry needling and the mysterious treatment is no longer mysterious. A Google search will provide numerous dry needling research articles, health posts, and even its own Wikipedia page. Even as I wrote this post, four new research articles regarding dry needling were published. Healthcare providers, professional athletes, chronic pain sufferers, and even my 87 year-old grandma are talking about dry needling. I’ll spare you a conversation with my grandma (she is adorable, but would talk your ear off about her sugar cookie recipe) and sum up the five most important facts about dry needling:

1. Dry needling is being used by physical therapists to treat a multitude of dysfunctions, in a variety of ways: Physical therapists may use dry needling to target a deep muscle in the hip to take pressure off of the sciatic nerve. In another instance, dry needling can be applied to the small, superficial muscles on the back of the neck to relieve chronic headaches. For an athlete, dry needling can be used to treat an ankle sprain and get them back on the field. From chronic headaches, to jaw pain, back pain, tendonitis, fibromyalgia, acute injuries, and even post-surgery, dry needling is another treatment in the physical therapist’s toolbox. Dry needling can complement a traditional physical therapy session and is covered by almost all insurance plans.

2. Dry needling is not acupuncture: A dry needling treatment by a physical therapist involves insertion of a solid filiform needle into the skin and underlying tissues. An acupuncture treatment by an acupuncturist involves insertion of a solid filiform needle into the skin and underlying tissues. Yes, you read correctly. Same tool, different practitioners, however the placement of the needles and the reasoning behind where they go is vastly different. An acupuncturist would place needles in the body based on ancient Chinese medicine meridians with the goal of restoring Qi (the universal life energy) flow, while a physical therapist places needles based on modern medicine, anatomy, and biomechanical dysfunctions.

3. Dry needling is an effective treatment: The exact mechanism as to how dry needling works is still under investigation. Without going into too much detail, current theories suggest that the insertion of a needle into tissue causes a micro injury. This micro injury triggers a response in the body to release feel good and healing chemicals, send them to the brain and the injured area, and promote healing. For an acute injury this could mean a faster healing time, while for a chronic injury, this means FINALLY healing!

There is a growing body of evidence to support the use of dry needling in the physical therapy setting. According to a recent report released by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, high level evidence suggests that “dry needling helps reduce local and peripheral pain, thereby hastening the restoration of muscle function and range of motion. Dry needling (alone or with other physical therapy interventions) has been shown to be an effective treatment for neuromusculoskeletal diseases or condition, including arthritis, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, and chronic pain.”

4. Dry needling is safe: In Ohio, dry needling can be performed by a licensed physical therapist who has also obtained a certificate in dry needling from a continuing education course or series of courses. The continuing education courses specifically train a physical therapist how to avoid an adverse effect from dry needling and what to do in the rare occurrence that it does happen. The risks of dry needling (in order of increasing scariness) can include soreness, bruising, bleeding, infection, and lung puncture. The adverse effects are nothing to take lightly, however they are very low in occurrence (about .05% according to a 2014 study).

5. Dry needling is not for everyone: In addition to traditional physical therapy, dry needling can be utilized for several different diagnoses and dysfunctions. However, it may not be the best treatment for you. If you have varicose veins, an open wound, lymphedema, already have an infection, or have a condition which compromises your immunity, dry needling may not be for you. If you have a severe phobia or aversion to needles you probably didn’t even read this far into the post, and if you did, you may not feel the fear anymore!

If you want to learn more about dry needling, click here.

A referral is not needed for treatment in Ohio. If you want to find a dry needling provider in your area click here or here.


Mandi Fetters PT, DPT, CIDN is a physical therapist at Active Physical Therapy in Columbus, Ohio. She graduated from the University of Dayton with her Doctorate in Physical Therapy. She is a Certified Integrative Dry Needling Provider and also specializes in comprehensive treatment of the spine and jaw. While away from work, Mandi enjoys spending time with her husband, Doug, practicing yoga, and hiking.