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A Deeper Dive Into Dry Needling: How Dry Needling can effect the brain


Functional dry needling is gaining pretty wide recognition as a powerful technique for facilitating not just the rehabilitation process by addressing muscle pain and promoting healing when used in conjunction with other therapeutic modalities in the physical therapy world (manual therapy, progressive strengthening and tissue loading), but also in injury prevention and performance improvement in sport. Beyond its local effects on muscle tissues, this method also interacts with the central nervous system, playing a pivotal role in providing relief and restoring proper muscle function. Today we're going to delve into how functional dry needling impacts the central nervous system and contributes to alleviating muscle pain (hint: it's more than just releasing a trigger point).


The central nervous system (CNS), comprising the brain and spinal cord, plays a central role in processing sensory information, including pain signals. When there's an injury, muscle tension, or dysfunction in the body, sensory receptors called nociceptors send signals to the CNS, leading to the sensation of pain. The CNS interprets these signals and coordinates the body's response.


Functional dry needling, the practice of inserting thin needles into specific muscles, can trigger a localized response (often interpreted as a 'twitch'). However, the effects of this technique extend beyond the local area and involve the intricate connection between the CNS and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).


1. Neuromuscular Reset: When a needle is inserted into a trigger point or dysfunctional muscle tissue,

it elicits a "twitch response." This response is a quick and involuntary contraction of the muscle fibers around the needle. This contraction helps to reset the communication pathways between the muscles and the CNS via the spinal reflex arc (see the picture from the Backyard Brains page). Essentially, it causes a reflex interrupting the pain cycle without having to think about it which allows for a more normalized signaling process.




2. Gate Control Theory: Functional dry needling also taps into the gate control theory of pain perception. According to this theory, non-painful sensory input can close the "gate" to pain signals in the spinal cord, effectively reducing the perception of pain. The insertion of a needle into the muscle triggers sensory nerves, which can help modulate pain signals traveling to the CNS. With a smaller pain sensation, the client can then perform exercises that would address the root cause of the initial problem that they might not have been able to do prior to the needling treatment.


3. Release of Neurochemicals: Similarly to a chiropractic treatment, the mechanical stimulation caused by the needle insertion prompts the body to release neurochemicals like endorphins and enkephalins. These natural pain-relieving substances interact with receptors in the CNS, dampening pain signals and promoting a sense of well-being.


Benefits of Functional Dry Needling on a Brain that's interpreting pain

  • Holistic Relief: By engaging with the central nervous system, functional dry needling offers a more comprehensive approach to pain relief, addressing not only the physical symptoms but also the way pain is processed and perceived by the brain.

  • Reduced Pain Perception: The technique's influence on pain gateways and the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals can lead to a decrease in pain perception, promoting overall comfort.

  • Improved Muscle Function: As the CNS-regulated muscle communication is reset, muscle function often improves, allowing for better flexibility, muscle coordination and thus, range of motion.

  • Long-Term Healing: Functional dry needling's effects on the central nervous system can contribute to lasting relief, making it an attractive option for managing both acute and chronic muscle pain.


Functional dry needling's impact on the central nervous system sets it apart as a powerful tool for managing muscle pain and enhancing overall well-being. By engaging with the body's intricate neural pathways, this technique not only provides localized relief but also influences the way pain is processed and perceived. Whether you're seeking relief from acute discomfort or aiming to address chronic pain issues, the interaction between functional dry needling and the central nervous system offers a promising path towards improved muscle health and quality of life. Remember to consult a trained healthcare professional to determine if functional dry needling is a suitable option for your individual needs.

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