Is Dry Needling Really Effective?
Updated: May 6, 2019
Should you be asking your physiotherapist for dry needling to cure all of your stubborn ailments? There is no doubt that the use of dry needling has become an extremely popular treatment method for physiotherapists and other allied health professionals treating musculoskeletal pain conditions. They are thought to help by relaxing or 'releasing' tight spots in the targeted muscles, but is it really effective in improving musculoskeletal pain conditions?
All health professionals should practice based on evidence
Anyone seeking help for treatment of a musculoskeletal pain condition should have peace of mind that their chosen health professional will be acting in their best interest by delivering best practice treatment methods. This means using methods which are based on evidence to achieve the best possible outcome. No, this doesn't mean every treatment or assessment method needs to be analysed in a lab or in a large randomised controlled trial to prove its effectiveness. It means considering three things:
The clinical expertise of the treating health professional. Has the chosen treatment method previously been effective when used with patients in clinical practice?
The scientific evidence for the treatment of choice. Has the assessment or treatment method been studied in scientifically controlled trials, and if so, were the results favourable?
Your values/beliefs. The power of the mind is great! If you really believe a particular treatment method will work for you, it more than likely will.
So, with this in mind, is dry needling based on sound evidence-based principles?
Let's analyse dry needling using the important principles of evidence-based practice described above:
1. Is there scientific evidence for dry needling?
A recent systematic review and meta-analysis (the highest level of scientific research) published in 2017 reviewed all the scientific literature to find out what science says about dry needling. It found the following:
Dry needling is effective at reducing pain compared to sham treatments, but is not necessarily more effective than other treatment methods
No difference in functional outcomes exists when compared to other physiotherapy treatments
2. Are physiotherapists finding it effective?
More and more physiotherapists are using dry needling as a way to treat musculoskeletal pain conditions. If they didn't find them effective, and more importantly if patients didn't see a benefit from having dry needling done to them, common sense would suggest they'd stop using them.
3. What do you believe will work best for your injury?
What type of treatment do you feel you need? Do you feel like you need hands-on deep tissue massage, stretches, therapeutic ultrasound, advice about what exercise to do? Do you believe dry needles will work? Your own beliefs will probably be influenced by your personal experience with dry needles, what you've heard from family and friends, and what your physiotherapist has told you about them. Your beliefs are likely to have some influence on how you respond to any treatment!
What is our recommendation?
Evidence suggests dry needles do help reduce pain compared to sham treatments, and clinically, physiotherapists seem to be using them more and more due to their perceived benefit. Ultimately, every individual responds differently to different treatment methods, and if patients are finding a benefit from them (as a part of a holistic treatment plan), there is no reason to stop using them.