What is the difference between dry needling and acupuncture?
This is a question that comes up all the time in the clinic. Whilst dry needling and acupuncture seem to be the same thing, they are very different.
In fact the only thing they really have in common is that they use the same type of needles for both. So for dry needling we use acupuncture needles. There are no special type of dry needling needles.
These needles are really thin - 0.25mm (1/4 of a millimetre), so they are nothing like hypodermic needles and that is why you can’t really feel them when they go in. A human hair is anywhere from 0.08 - 0.12mm thick, so these needles are around the thickness of 2-3 hairs.
What separates Dry Needling and Acupuncture is the approach and philosophy.
Acupuncture is based in traditional Chinese medicine (T.C.M). This is a major form of medicine in China and is very different to Western style medicine. TCM uses a system of meridians in the body, which are like energy lines that run throughout the whole body. The idea is that if there is a blockage along one of those lines then it could be causing a dysfunction in the body. Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions and not just musculoskeletal injuries. The needles generally aren’t inserted all that far into the body, generally just into the skin. Usually you won’t feel very much. Sometimes you can feel a sensation elsewhere in your body. Acupuncture can also be considered quite relaxing. There are points in acupuncture called "a-shi" points and these are generally seen as the points where the pain is experienced and can be seen as a similar approach to dry needling. Acupuncturists will more likely place needles in remote areas away from where you feel the pain.
Dry needling on the other hand is a western approach, involving the needles being inserted into the trigger point in the muscle. Dry needling was first used in 1979 by the Czech Physician Karel Lewit and also Dr's Travel and Simons. The trigger point is a sensitive point in the muscle that is defined as a small tender nodule within a taut band of tissue. Usually this is what most people would call a knot. The needle is inserted into this point and we aim to get a twitch or contraction from the muscle. This can help the muscle tissue to "let go" and reduce the tension. It also helps to bring blood flow to the area to help your own body heal the injury. Usually a practitioner will focus on the painful area and not so much remote points that can be quite far away from the area of pain. With dry needling we may also work on other areas that are related via related muscles or fascial lines.
Dry needling can definitely be more painful than acupuncture as it is actually going into your muscle tissue and not just into the superficial skin and tissues. Most people explain the sensation as “weird” more so that painful. It can also be a bit of a surprise as you usually don’t feel very much as the needle goes into the tissue and then suddenly, when the trigger point is stimulated, you will feel the muscle twitch.
You can feel a deep dull sensation, a referral pain as in feeling pain somewhere else in your body, a sharp sensation and also uncontrollable spasms in the muscle. These are all normal sensations in dry needling.
Why is it called Dry Needling?
This is another question that gets asked all the time. It is called dry needling as there is no injection. When trigger point therapy was in its infancy practitioners were using needles to inject anesthetic and other things like glucose or saline into the soft tissues to reduce pain sensation and also help the contracted muscle tissue to relax. When it was realised that the needle by itself was just as effective as the injectable, dry needling was born. So it was called dry needling to differentiate it from "wet needling" or injection therapy. No one ever says wet needling as it just sounds wrong.
So there you have it. These are the major differences between Dry Needling and Acupuncture. So if you are looking for dry needling you need to make sure that the practitioner is trained in dry needling and not just acupuncture. And vice versa, if you are looking for Acupuncture then this needs to be performed by someone qualified in it.
At Muscle Therapy Australia we are highly trained in Dry Needling and we find it helps us to get great results.
If you would like to try dry needling or find out more, don’t hesitate to get in touch or book in a session now.
Note that Mark Bray currently isn't offering Dry Needling but is studying Myotherapy currently and will offer Dry needling when qualified.