Dry needling refers to a procedure in which a fine needle is inserted into the skin and muscle at a site of myofascial pain. The needle may be moved in an up-and-down motion, rotated, and/or left in place for as long as 30 minutes. The intent is to stimulate underlying myofascial trigger points, muscles, and connective tissues to manage myofascial pain. Dry needling may be performed with acupuncture needles or standard hypodermic needles but is performed without the injection of medications (e.g., anesthetics, corticosteroids). Dry needling is proposed to treat dysfunctions in skeletal muscle, fascia, and connective tissue; diminish persistent peripheral pain, and reduce impairments of body structure and function.
The physiologic basis for dry needling depends on the targeted tissue and treatment objectives. The most studied targets are trigger points. Trigger points are discrete, focal, hyperirritable spots within a taut band of skeletal muscle fibers that produce local and/or referred pain when stimulated. Trigger points are associated with local ischemia and hypoxia, a significantly lowered pH, local and referred pain and altered muscle activation patterns. Trigger points can be visualized by magnetic resonance imaging and elastography. The reliability of manual identification of trigger points has not been established.
Deep dry needling is believed to inactivate trigger points by eliciting contraction and subsequent relaxation of the taut band via a spinal cord reflex. This local twitch response is defined as a transient visible or palpable contraction or dimpling of the muscle, and has been associated with alleviation of spontaneous electrical activity; reduction of numerous nociceptive, inflammatory, and immune system related chemicals; and relaxation of the taut band. Deep dry needling of trigger points is believed to reduce local and referred pain, improve range of motion, and decrease trigger point irritability.
Superficial dry needling is thought to activate mechanoreceptors and have an indirect effect on pain by inhibiting C-fiber pain impulses. The physiologic basis for dry needling treatment of excessive muscle tension, scar tissue, fascia, and connective tissues is not as well described in the literature.
Dry needling of trigger points for the treatment of myofascial pain is considered investigational.
Not covered regardless of diagnosis code
Practice Guidelines and Position Statements
American Physical Therapy Association
A educational resource paper by the American Physical Therapy Association (2012) defined dry needling as “a skilled intervention used by physical therapists (where allowed by state law) that uses a thin filiform needle to penetrate the skin and stimulate underlying myofascial trigger points, muscular, and connective tissues for the management of neuromusculoskeletal pain and movement impairments.”
The Association (2013) issued an educational resource paper that included the following indications for dry needling: radiculopathies, joint dysfunction, disc pathology, tendonitis, craniomandibular dysfunction, carpal tunnel syndrome, whiplash-associated disorders, and complex regional pain syndrome.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Physical Therapists
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Physical Therapists (2009) issued a statement that dry needling fell within the scope of physical therapist practice. In support of this position, the Academy stated that “dry needling is a neurophysiological evidence-based treatment technique that requires effective manual assessment of the neuromuscular system…. Research supports that dry needling improves pain control, reduces muscle tension, normalizes biochemical and electrical dysfunction of motor end plates, and facilitates an accelerated return to active rehabilitation.”