While evidence of long-term benefits is lacking, research suggests dry needling may provide safe, short-term relief for neck pain.

Hand of a healthcare professional performing dry needling on someone's neck for pain reliefShare on Pinterest
Ricardo Mendoza Garbayo/Getty Images

Dry needling, or intramuscular stimulation, involves inserting thin, solid, stainless steel needles (filiform needles) into specific trigger points to help release tension, promote blood flow, and relieve inflammation.

Trigger points are tight bands of muscle tissue that refer pain to distant areas when irritated.

This technique doesn’t involve injecting fluids into the skin, which is why the term “dry” is used to describe it.

Currently, there’s no standard number of training hours required for practicing dry needling.

The American Medical Association (AMA) considers dry needling an invasive procedure that should only be performed by professionals trained in needle use, such as licensed acupuncturists and medical doctors.

In fact, some states, such as New York and California, prohibit some healthcare professionals like physical therapists from practicing dry needling.

Research suggests that dry needling can help with neck pain related to the myofascial system, but it may not affect neck pain from other causes.

Research from 2020 found that dry needling may be effective for the short-term relief of neck pain and pain-related impairment. In addition, research from 2022 on dry needling for chronic neck pain also reported short-term benefits and noted continued improvements among participants over a 6-month follow-up period.

One of the most extensive evaluations of dry needling for neck pain was conducted in a 2023 review of high quality clinical trials. The research found dry needling provided safe, effective short- and mid-term improvement of chronic neck pain and functional capacity.

In people over the age 40, the research found that dry needling was more effective than other traditional therapies like stretching and manual therapy. Overall, dry needling combined with physical therapy was the most effective approach for reducing chronic neck pain.

Dry needling may be uncomfortable or painful for some people. It involves the insertion of thin needles, which may cause a pricking sensation or a twitch response from the muscle.

Because dry needling targets trigger points, you might already be sensitive or sore in these areas. Pressure may feel uncomfortable in hypersensitive myofascial areas.

According to a 2020 research questionnaire, 5.9% of people reported pain with dry needling.

Other reported side effects include:

  • bleeding
  • bruising
  • numbness
  • headache
  • drowsiness
  • nausea

How well dry needling works — and how long you experience those benefits — may depend on several factors. Your age, overall health, and severity of neck pain can all play a role.

Current evidence suggests that dry needling can provide short- to mid-term benefits for many people. Some people experienced improvements for up to 12 weeks, while others continued to see benefits at a 6-month follow-up.

Dry needling may relieve your symptoms for extended periods. Still, not enough long-term research currently exists to understand the entire duration of the therapeutic effects.

Neck pain can have many different causes. Even mild pain can be a sign of an underlying medical condition. If you’re in pain, speaking with a healthcare professional may help.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons recommends seeing a professional when neck pain:

  • doesn’t improve after a week
  • isn’t responsive to over-the-counter medications
  • is accompanied by a headache, fever, or weakness in the limbs
  • involves tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arms or hands
  • causes shooting pain down one or both arms
  • prevents you from touching your chin to your chest
  • results from an injury or a hit to the head

Although its exact classification is a topic of debate, dry needling is generally considered different from acupuncture, another therapy involving needle insertion.

Acupuncture is based on the principles of energy flow, or Qi, from traditional Chinese medicine. Practitioners insert needles into points on the body, called acupoints, which are based on thousands of years of tradition and practice. Dry needling does not rely on traditional acupoints.

Both therapies are options for treating neck pain, and a growing body of research suggests dry needling may be a safe and effective option for short- and mid-term relief.

Dry needling isn’t limited to the management of neck pain. It may be applied to myofascial pain in many areas of the body and support the treatment of chronic pain conditions like myofascial pain syndrome (MPS).

Research from 2023 looking at dry needling in musculoskeletal conditions found that the therapy effectively provided short-term pain relief across all areas of the body. The authors indicated that more standardization in the practice of dry needling is needed for future research to help confirm the benefits.

Evidence is also promising for other myofascial conditions. Research from 2019, for example, states that enough evidence exists to support the use of dry needling in chronic pain conditions like MPS. According to the authors, dry needling may help regulate underlying erratic signaling in the nervous system.

Enhancing dry needling techniques with modifications like electrical stimulation may broaden the range of benefits.

A 2023 review of five randomized controlled trials found that dry needling with electrical stimulation safely improved pain and physical impairment levels of people with musculoskeletal shoulder pain. However, the authors didn’t find dry needling alone to be more beneficial than traditional physical therapy.

Research suggests that dry needling can provide short- to mid-term relief for neck pain and other musculoskeletal pain conditions. More evidence is necessary, however, to assess any long-term benefits of this practice.

If you want to try dry needling for neck pain or other health concerns, it’s important to work with a licensed practitioner trained in the medical use of needles. The AMA recommends working with a licensed medical doctor or acupuncturist.