Lower back pain is an extremely common complaint. Around 80% of adults will experience lower back pain at some point in their life. Chronic back pain sufferers may try many different treatments, including alternative medicine techniques. Some of the most popular choices are manual therapies, which include osteopathy, chiropractic treatment and physiotherapy.

Within the field of physiotherapy, a treatment known as dry needling (DN) is becoming increasingly common, both for back pain and for ailments affecting other parts of the body. During DN, a therapist uses very fine, stainless steel needles, called filiform needles. These are inserted into specific myofascial trigger points – which are sometimes called “muscle knots” – underneath the skin.

dry needling
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Trigger points are spots in muscles that produce pain when pressed or irritated. The best way to detect trigger points is a subject of debate but may largely rely on the skill and experience of the therapist.

Can dry needling relieve pain and improve movement?
The primary aim of DN is to treat muscle pain and impaired movement. Exactly how this is achieved is currently poorly understood. However, it is generally accepted that when the needle is inserted into the trigger point, it creates a local muscle twitch, which inactivates the trigger point. Several different theories have been suggested to explain this inactivation. Most of these involve the effect of DN on muscle fibres (individual muscle cells) and the nervous system, which controls muscle action.

As with many alternative medicine techniques, the efficacy of DN is sometimes controversial. For example, one study has suggested no difference in treatment effect between DN and placebo, while others have shown that DN can effectively reduce pain when compared to other treatments.