What’s the Difference Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling?

by | Jul 17, 2018 | Education, Health, Treatment | 0 comments

Clinician inserts needles into specific points along your body to help reduce pain, increase motor function, and/or improve your overall health. Are we describing acupuncture, or dry needling? Can’t tell? Well don’t be surprised, most people don’t understand the difference. When broken down to the basics, it can be difficult to understand the difference between Acupuncture and Dry Needling. It’s not helped by the fact that both techniques involve the use of sterile needles to stimulate points throughout the body. On the surface the methods are quite similar, but each approach is unique in practice. So when you scratch the surface and look deeper, you’ll discover the two techniques have some significant differences. Let’s explore it further.


Acupuncture Origins

Acupuncture was developed from Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) concepts. The theory of acupuncture is based upon an essential life energy called qi (pronounced “chee”) which flows through the body along 20 invisible channels called meridians. When the flow of this energy is blocked or out of balance, illness or pain may develop according to TCM reasoning. More than 2,000 acupuncture points exist in the meridians.  Stimulating these points with needles help correct the flow of qi to alleviate pain and promote “energetic balance”.

Determining if Acupuncture is Right For You

Acupuncture treatment does not require a medical diagnosis to determine if acupuncture is a suitable treatment for your condition. There is no medical examination required, nor a referral from any medical doctor.

Moreover, depending on the practitioner, acupuncture may be employed to treat almost any medical ailment. Joint pain, muscular pain, obesity, impotence, diabetes, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, and fatigue are all within the scope of what acupuncture is used to treat. Keep in mind this is a very short sample list; some practitioners can and will attempt to treat any ailment with acupuncture.

Acupuncture Treatment and Technique

There is no set treatment technique when it comes to acupuncture. While the general mechanics are the same — inserting needles into specific meridian points along the body — the exact placement, and which meridian points are even used, can vary widely between practitioners. Different teachers of acupuncture will develop different methodologies they believe generate the best results, meaning two acupuncturists offering the same service might perform very different treatments.

Measuring Success of Acupuncture Treatment

The only measure of success in acupuncture is the subjective reporting of pain or symptoms by the patient. There are no other checks or tests required in acupuncture to measure the efficacy of the treatment. If a patient says they feel less pain, then the treatment is a success. Some practitioners will measure other factors, but this is not a requisite in acupuncture.

Dry Needling

Dry Needling Origins

Dry needling began with the use of hypodermic needles to treat painful musculoskeletal conditions.  The technique of dry needling has no historical ties to acupuncture.  Instead, dry needling is a therapeutic intervention based on Western Medicine principles of anatomy and neurophysiology.  In the early 1940s, medical doctors Janet Travell and David Simons proposed using injections into myofascial trigger points to treat painful muscle dysfunctions. Dr. Travell became President John F. Kennedy’s White House physician and later authored the first manual on Myofascial Pain and Trigger Point with Dr Simons. The wider use of “Dry” Needling started after a study in 1979 by a Czech physician, Karel Lewit, where it was emphasized that the “needling effect” is distinct from that of the injected substance (“wet” needling). Since then, numerous medical studies have found Dry Needling offers beneficial effects for improved blood flow and tissue healing. Currently, Dry Needling practitioners tend to utilize the smaller, more painless acupuncture needles rather than hypodermic needles.

Determining if Dry Needling is Right For You

Dry needling is always preceded with a medical evaluation from a qualified health professional. Like any other medical treatment, it will only be prescribed if it’s determined that dry needling is a beneficial treatment for a condition.

Dry needling is only employed to treat neuromusculoskeletal ailments (problems primarily relating to some manner of muscular dysfunction and its effects on the body). Conditions treated by dry needling include (but are not limited to) repetitive stress injuries, muscle tendonitis, neck pain, headaches, knee osteoarthritis, rotator cuff impingement, frozen shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome, and muscle strains.

You will never be prescribed dry needling for weight management, depression, or other conditions unrelated to the neuromusculoskeletal system.

Dry Needling Treatment and Technique

With dry needling, the technique is standardized across practitioners. A physical therapist performing dry needling in Alaska should be performing the same treatment as one in New York. While there will always be nuances in the skill and experience of the individual practitioners, the same steps will be taken to treat the same conditions even by different practitioners.

Measuring Success of Dry Needling Treatment

A physical therapist must track several metrics to assess a patient’s progress during any intervention. Range of motion, strength, balance, and coordination are just some of the things a physical therapist will monitor and measure. Without these metrics, true, objective progress cannot be determined.

So as we said at the beginning; on the surface, acupuncture and dry needling are very similar treatments. Looking a little closer, it’s obvious the mechanisms are similar, but the application and approach is very different. If you’re interested in dry needling, or just finding out more, contact our team today at Northern Edge Physical Therapy.


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