Muscular trigger points (sometimes called “myofascial trigger points”) are a commonly overlooked cause of acute and chronic musculoskeletal pain. Defined as “a hyperirritable spot in a taut band of a skeletal muscle”, trigger points can cause exquisite local tenderness, referred aching pain in distant, seemingly unrelated areas, and can even mimic burning nerve pain. These referred areas of pain can range widely in size — if you look at the photo below, you can see that gluteal trigger points can cause pain all the way down the leg!
How can dry needling help relieve trigger point pain? Trigger points activate many different types of pain receptors in muscles that respond to mechanical or chemical stimuli. Dry needling can affect these pain receptors in many ways: it can mechanically disrupt these taut bands, elicit a local twitch response, decrease concentrations of chemical mediators that signal pain receptors, increase blood flow to the area, and help to modify the inflammatory process. One distinctive result of dry needling is the local twitch response. This twitch feels a bit like if you have a muscle “tic”, and is an involuntary spinal cord reflex that follows a stimulus (like dry needling, injections, or even deep snapping palpation.) Eliciting a local twitch response can help get rid of trigger points by decreasing the nerve signal sent from the spinal cord.
All in all, dry needling is a good adjunct to what you may already be doing whether it be stretching, self-releasing, or going to physical therapy. Working out those trigger points can ultimately lead to a decrease in pain, improvement in muscle function, improved functional mobility, and improved performance. Dry needling’s benefits occur not only at a local musculoskeletal level, but at a whole-body nervous system, hormonal, systemic level, and as it becomes more widespread, further research is being done to explain its many benefits.