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Jun 19, 2020

How Is Dry Needling Different Than Acupuncture?

how is dry needling different than acupuncture

At first glance, dry needling and acupuncture appear synonymous with one another. If one looked at a picture describing each practice, differentiating between the two may seem impossible! However, beyond the tools utilized in each service, the similarities end. 

Acupuncture and dry needling are performed by different specialists with distinct training. Furthermore, both stem from separate medicinal origins. In the content below, we explore dry needling, acupuncture, and the differences between both practices.

What is Dry Needling?

Dry needling is a form of therapy designed to relieve muscle pain, tension, and cramping while improving both flexibility and restoration of function. Dry needle therapy is designed to manage neuromusculoskeletal pain and movement impairments.

What is dry needle therapy?

Dry needling therapy is seldom performed as a standalone treatment and should always be implemented by skilled therapists in a professional setting. Most often, dry needling is incorporated into a physical therapy treatment plan that also incorporates traditional interventions.

Specialists who perform dry needling are certified to carry out this therapeutic method. Dry needle therapy involves penetrating trigger points with several thin, monofilament needles. Nothing is injected into the patient during the needling process. Therefore, the needle is completely dry, matching its name “dry” needling.

What is a trigger point?

According to Physiopedia, a trigger point is “a palpable nodule in the taut bands of the skeletal muscles’ fascia.” Essentially, trigger points are hyperirritable spots of knotted or hard muscle.

When the needle enters trigger points, the injection desensitizes these super-sensitive structures to induce a healing response that aids restoration.

How is dry needling performed?

Dry needle therapy is often performed by penetrating skin with a filament needle and leaving the point in the muscle for 10-30 minutes. The in-and-out technique and non-trigger points technique are two additional variations.

During the in-and-out-technique, also called sparrow pecking or pistoning, the specialist inserts the needle into the intended trigger points then removes it immediately.

The non-trigger points techniqueis self-explanatory! The specialist inserts the needles into muscle surrounding a trigger point, avoiding the precise area itself. Non-trigger point needling may be utilized to broadly treat the central nervous system instead of the main area of pain.

What is the history of dry needling?

Dry needling stems from Western medicine. First introduced in the 1940s by Dr. Janet Travell, she researched the response of muscular trigger points when penetrated with needling techniques. Although Dr. Travell began research with “wet needling” – the injection of a substance through the needle – she found similar results with a dry needle. With the help of Dr. David G. Simon, the dry needling pioneers identified multiple trigger points located within the human body.

The second generation of dry needling was introduced in the 1970s. The concept of Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS), developed by Dr. C. Gunn, specifically targets myofascial pain syndrome. IMS is based on the understanding that myofascial pain stems from nervous system dysfunction or disease. In Dr. Gunn’s time, the idea that a nerve root caused such pathology was revolutionary. While IMS is often considered the next step in dry needle therapy development, Dr. Gunn did not refer to Travell’s trigger-point approach, developed thirty years prior.

While Dr. Gunn developed IMS, a professor of anatomy discovered homeostatic points and their clinical applications, a continuation of Dr. Travell’s previous research. Dr. H.C. Dung’s homeostatic developments – build upon decades of research – led to the current exploration of dry needling, being written today.

What are the benefits of dry needling?

Dry needling may provide pleasant relief from muscular pain and tension, stiffness, or lack of motion. Often, dry needle therapy is recommended for sports injuries, fibromyalgia pain, or muscular distress.

Are there risks associated with dry needle therapy?

Although it is good to be aware of the mild dry needling side effects, severe risks are extremely rare. Typically, however, bruising, soreness, or bleeding are common around the specific injection site.

A professional therapist performing dry needling will utilize new, sterile needles after every procedure. Therefore, contracting a bloodborne illness, infection, or disease should not be a concern.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of treatment, performed by licensed specialists who completed years of extensive training and nationalized testing. Certain insurance agencies may cover acupuncture as a medical treatment.

Acupuncture is designed to be a holistic treatment, for hundreds of conditions, including allergies, nausea, low back pain, menstrual cramps, labor-related pain, migraines, and even addiction and depression. When effective, acupuncture often provides short-term relief from symptoms by producing endorphins.

The belief behind acupuncture is that nerve stimulation opens the patient’s energy flow, often called chi. According to an article by Mayo Clinic:

Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as chi or qi (chee) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance… In contrast, many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. Some believe that this stimulation boosts your body’s natural painkillers.

Are there risks associated with acupuncture?

Like dry needling, severe side effects are rare. However, pain during injection, bruising, and bleeding are relatively common. Once again, if sterile needles are utilized during every procedure, bloodborne issues should not be a concern.

Although severe risks to acupuncture are rare, specific individuals are at greater risk of complications:

  • If you have a bleeding disorder, your changes of excessive bleeding or bruising during acupuncture increase.
  • If you have a pacemaker, be wary of acupuncture involving electrical pulses. These can interfere with successful operation of the pacemaker.
  • Finally, if you are pregnant, some forms of acupuncture may lead to premature delivery through labor stimulation.

What is the history of acupuncture?

Acupuncture is based on Eastern medicine, originating in China. Some of the first recorded mentions of acupuncture were recorded many years before the Common Era. After many years of development, acupuncture became a standard Chinese therapy. Like dry needling, acupuncture was often accompanied by other treatment methods. Unlike dry needling, these treatment methods often included herbs, massage, heat therapy, or dietary changes.

News Medical Life Sciences further explains the development of acupuncture between the 14th and 16th centuries:

It was in the fifteenth century that Bronze statues with acupuncture points that are in use today were depicted. These were used for teaching and examination purposes… Between the 14th and 16th centuries the Ming dynasty flourished (1368–1644). During this time, The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion was published with principles of acupuncture on which modern practices of this tradition rests. The book goes on to describe 365 points that represent openings to the channels through which needles could be inserted to modify the flow of Qi.

Interestingly, however, the practice of acupuncture began to decline in the 17th century, eventually becoming outlawed in Chinese medicine by 1929. Various other forms of traditional medicine were outlawed in the same era. Twenty years later, acupuncture and other traditional medicines were legalized again and reinstituted among medical facilities.

In the 1950s, the practice of acupuncture began spreading to other countries, slowly becoming acceptable in certain areas, under some conditions.

What are the Primary Differences Between Dry Needling & Acupuncture?

In both practices, a needle is inserted into specific points to reduce pain. However, this is where the similarities end.

  • As explored, dry needling and acupuncture stem from differing medicinal origins.
  • Another primary difference lies in the purpose of the procedure. Acupuncture is designed to alleviate pain or treat health conditions by altering the flow of chi, while dry needling utilized evidence-based techniques to treat specific conditions.
  • A final distinction rests in penetration points. Dry needling penetrates the skin at specific trigger points to release tension and induce a healing response. Acupuncture targets points along meridian lines, representing bodily organs, with the goal of restoring balance and proper energy flow to the patient’s body.

Rock Valley Physical Therapy: Dry Needling Services      

At Rock Valley Physical Therapy, we are dedicated to restoring normal function to the body and making lives better. Many of our physical therapists are certified in dry needling practices, implemented as part of a comprehensive approach to aide in the modulation of pain, renewal of motion, and restoration of function. To inquire further about our services, please do not hesitate to request an appointment! Our Front Office team will be in contact with you to schedule your first appointment shortly