Science Behind Trigger Point Acupuncture (aka ‘Dry Needling’)
Trigger Point Acupuncture (aka ‘Dry Needling’) has gained traction in recent years in the US, becoming a more commonly-used acupuncture-based mechanism to relieve myo-fascial pain. In Trigger Point Acupuncture (aka ‘Dry Needling’), hair-thin acupuncture needles are inserted into the body in areas where muscle tissue and fascia have become painful, knotted or compromised in some way.
Dry Needling, however, is far from new. For thousands of years, what is now known as ‘Dry Needling’ has been known in China as ‘Ashi’ or ‘Ashixue’ (阿是穴) acupuncture. ‘Ashi’ style acupuncture has been but one simple technique within the multifaceted- and more complex- system of acupuncture.
What IS new about ‘Dry Needling’, however, is that modern science has begun to unravel the scientific basis behind how this type of acupuncture works. Chinese Medicine Physicians- who had been performing this technique for millennia- could not have known on a chemical or molecular level how their practice of Ashi acupuncture was working. Theories behind it’s efficacy were explained via Chinese Medicine diagnostic terms.
What we know today about how myo-fascial trigger points develop and how they are relieved through the use of acupuncture is largely based on the work of Janet Travell and David Simons. There are many layers of explanation involved in illuminating the pathogenesis and alleviation of Trigger Points. The following is a short summary of the basics.
Put simply, Trigger Points are constant/consistent sources of pain in specific areas of muscle and fascial tissue where tight bands of contracted or knotted tissue are found. Normal muscle tissue is free of ‘contraction knots’ within the muscle fibers. When these ‘contraction knots’ occur, the brain receives pain signals resulting in a somatic awareness of specific areas of physical pain. There are two types of trigger points: active and latent. Both types can cause range of motion issues, muscle dysfunction or weakness.
According to Dommerholt’s research* found in the Journal of Manual Manipulation Therapy, “Dry needling can not only reverse some aspects of central sensitization, it reduces local and referred pain, improves range of motion and muscle activation pattern, and alters the chemical environment of trigger points.”
Another scientific journal** lists some of the common pain conditions that have been associated with myo-fascial trigger points. These include: migraines, tension type headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, disk pathology, radiculopathies, tendonitis, craniomandibular dysfunction, joint dysfunction, spinal dysfunction, computer-related disorders, whiplash-associated disorders, pelvic pain and other urologic syndromes, complex regional pain syndrome and post-herpetic neuralgia.
A comprehensive understanding of the scientific details behind the pathogenesis and alleviation of myo-fascial Trigger Points would require a much larger platform than a blog post like this can accommodate. However, I hope that all of you have at least learned some of the basics regarding this very effective form of treatment for the numerous pain conditions that can be relieved through Trigger Point Acupuncture (aka ‘Dry Needling’).
A final note: Since acupuncturists receive several years of acupuncture-specific training, they are very well-equipped to perform this type of technique. However, not all acupuncturists perform Trigger Point acupuncture within their own practice, so it is best to inquire ahead of time when looking for an acupuncturist in your area.
May you all be healthy, happy and full of vitality!