Chronic pain? Headaches? Migraines? Have you heard of dry needling?

Written by Jim Berger. Posted in February

Dry needling: What is it and can it help?

Let’s first evaluate the benefit of physical therapy and how it can help relieve headaches and chronic pain:


Physical therapy (PT) is a specialty service that remediates impairments and promotes mobility, function, and quality of life (i.e., providing hands-on care to assist in recovery after injury to return you to activities of life and previous athletic activities).

Physical therapy commonly includes patient education; hands-on manual therapy; mechanical devices such as traction; physical agents that include heat, cold, electricity, sound waves, radiation, and light therapy; and the use of specific exercises and other interventions. In addition, physical therapists work with individuals to prevent the loss of mobility before it occurs by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs. These programs provide services and guidance to develop, maintain, and restore maximum movement and functional ability throughout an individual’s life. So, yes, physical therapy is a key service to alleviating pain.

Dry needling is a highly effective form of physical therapy for the treatment of a multitude of musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions as well as headaches. Dry needling is the use of acupuncture needles to relieve muscular pain and myofascial (muscular) disorders. It is a small part of the overall physical therapy plan of care that has allowed patients to heal and recover from injury more quickly.

Dry needling is not a new process and has its roots in Far Eastern medicine. The history of dry needling dates back to the 1940s with Dr. Janet Tavell. She identified the muscular trigger points and the referral patterns that were elicited with dry needling. In 1970, Dr. C. Gunn developed the concept and techniques of Intramuscular Stimulation, or the second generation of dry needling. In the late 1970s Dr. H.C. Dung discovered the homeostatic points and Dr. Yun-tao Ma expanded on this research and its clinical application. Dr. Ma discovered a relationship between homeostatic points and human biomechanical homeostasis. Thus, the third generation of dry needling was established. The performance of modern dry needling by physical therapists is based on Western neuroanatomy and modern scientific study of the musculoskeletal and nervous system.

How does dry needling work? Dry needling is not acupuncture. It involves inserting thin, solid-filament needles into the muscle to stimulate the healing process of soft tissue. Dry needling targets the trigger points, or hyper-irritated muscle tissue, which is the direct and palpable source of the individual’s pain. It helps to accelerate healing by causing a micro lesion within the pathological tissue, thus allowing for increased circulation to the injured area, improved oxygen delivery, and stimulation of the neural pathways that can block pain messages as they travel from your central nervous system to your muscles. The aim of dry needling is to achieve a local twitch response to release muscle tension and pain. This mechanical and neuromuscular effect provides an environment that enhances the body’s ability to heal, which ultimately reduces pain.

Dry needling, when combined with appropriate strengthening or stabilization exercises and biomechanical assessment, can help alleviate both acute and chronic muscular disorders. When combined with traditional physical therapy interventions, dry needling is an effective intervention in relieving pain, improving range of motion, and accelerating healing.

Dry needling has shown to be effective in dealing with:

  • Acute and chronic tendonitis
  • IT band syndrome
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Athletic and sports overuse injuries
  • Chronic pain conditions
  • Neck and upper back pain
  • Headaches: migraines and tension-type
  • Lower-back pain
  • Calf tightness/spasms
  • Tennis elbow/golfer’s elbow
  • Shin splints
  • Muscle spasms.

Dry needling has been so effective that the 2012 Washington Redskins became one of five NFL teams to use dry needling in addressing tightness and weakness in players.

Heartland Rehabilitation Services has two clinicians that are trained in dry needling: Alex Vargo, PT, and Kim Schulisch, PT. Both have seen success in using dry needling with other therapy interventions.

Alex had an individual referred to him for dry needling to address a severe migraine problem. The patient’s migraine pain and discomfort dropped significantly in intensity and duration following five dry-needling treatments. She was able to manage daily routines and activities and to identify the difference between a tension-type headache and a migraine.

Kim was presented with a young athlete with chronic shin splints. He experienced significant pain in his shins after running for less than five minutes. He and his parents tried a variety of medical treatments throughout the community over a period of six months with no significant pain relief. They heard about Heartland and their dry needling successes. They were skeptical but willing to try. After four visits of dry needling and PT for core stabilization, he was able to actively run for 10 minutes before he started feeling pain. After four weeks of therapy, he was able to complete 40 minutes of his sport with little to no pain. It has been two months since he completed physical therapy involving dry needling with Kim, and he is actively playing sports pain free.

Heartland Rehabilitation Services offers dry needling as a part of its treatment regime at its Oregon, Westgate, and Bedford clinics. If you are interested in finding out more about dry needling, call Alex at 419-697-8000 or Kim at 734-856-6737.❦

Heartland Rehabilitation Services, provider of outpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy, hand therapy, and wellness services, has five locations in the metro Toledo area: Maumee, Perrysburg, Oregon, Lambertville, and Toledo. Call Jim Berger, Area Manager, at 419-787-6741 for more information about services, treatment, and educational programs.