Differences and Similarities between Dry Needling and Acupuncture

If you have come across an image of someone with multiple needles inserted into their bodies as a medical therapy, you probably assumed it was an image of acupuncture. This ancient medical therapy that originated in China has become increasingly popular in the West due to its low cost and minimal health risks. Acupuncture inserts very thin steel needles into key “chi” flow points to stimulate the proper flow of this healing energy. Acupuncture has been used to treat a wide variety of health conditions including pain, allergies, nausea, and menstrual cramps.

However, you may find that the image you came across is not of acupuncture at all. Dry needling is a relatively new practice that uses similar materials and techniques but is based upon a completely different medical knowledge. Dry needling also uses lightly inserted steel needles, but it is used almost exclusively to release knots of muscle tension by stimulating “trigger points.”

A Brief History of Acupuncture

It is believed that acupuncture may have originated in China in the centuries before the Common Era. Although early historical evidence suggests use of bone needles and a different meridian system than modern acupuncture, there are documents from this period that indicate that acupuncture was in common practice.

Throughout the ensuing years, acupuncture remained a fixture of Chinese medicine, although it did go through periods of unpopularity. For example, in the 17th century, acupuncture was considered superstitious and irrational, and it was banned in 1822 by imperial decree. Fortunately, it was widely practiced in rural communities and this medical knowledge was preserved.

Following the rise of the communist government in 1949, acupuncture was reinstated probably as a means to bolster national health care. Since then, acupuncture has been practiced in modern Chinese hospitals alongside Western medicine.

Medical establishments in the West have adopted acupuncture only with great skepticism—at least initially. In the 1970s, American doctors investigated acupuncture following some high-profile cases in which it was used as surgical analgesia. Although subsequent studies did not support the use of acupuncture for surgical pain, major medical organizations like the National Institutes of Health did support its application for certain health conditions.

Modern studies of acupuncture have dismissed the founding principles of meridian stimulation, and instead rely on a neurological model in which the insertion of needles stimulate nerve endings and modify brain function. It is believed that needle insertion promotes production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which in turn stimulate blood circulation and the healing process.

A Closer Look at Dry Needling

While acupuncture has a millennia’s long history, dry needling has only been in existence for a few decades. In the 1940’s, physicians first identified myofascial trigger points which are hyperirritable muscle knots that govern muscle contraction. Initially physicians injected compounds like steroids, pain relievers or saline into the trigger points, but it soon became apparent that it was the mechanical process of needle insertion that loosened these muscles. The term dry needling is derived from this procedure of inserting a needle without injection of any medical compounds.

Dry needling is used to treat muscle pain like that found among athletes or fibromyalgia sufferers. It has also been shown to increase flexibility and range of motion. This medical therapy is often used to treat the chronic pain condition myofascial pain syndrome in which pressure on key points in muscles causes pain in unrelated parts of the body.

Acupuncture vs. Dry Needling

Although acupuncture and dry needling have been used as pain therapies, they are quite distinct from one another in many ways.

  • Medical basis—while dry needling is intended to release muscle tension by activating trigger points, acupuncture stimulate endorphin production by interacting with nerve endings. Dry needling is founded on scientifically evaluated evidence, while acupuncture evolved from a mystical tradition that was based on anecdotal observations.
  • Regulatory regime—acupuncture has become widely accepted by the U.S. medical industry which is why it has developed a governing body that has implemented a licensure process. On the other hand, dry needling does not require certification so quality of care may vary.  Make sure that your dry needling provider is certified to ensure optimal outcomes.
  • Pain management—dry needling has limited efficacy in pain management; it is used almost exclusively to relieve muscle pain and cramping. Acupuncture, however, has been used effectively to treat many kinds of pain including migraines, muscle aches, labor-related pain, and knee pain.
  • Insurance coverage—although some private carriers will cover some acupuncture sessions, major carriers like Medicare will not cover dry needling treatments.

Benefits and Risks

As with all medical therapies, there are benefits and risks associated with acupuncture and dry needling that you should consider before proceeding. It is important that you discuss the prospect of either kind of treatment with your doctor so that you can learn if they are appropriate for you.

It has been difficult to establish whether acupuncture or dry needling are efficacious in treating various health conditions because there have been so few definitive studies. The most important medical studies of any treatment involve comparing the therapy to a placebo, but because it is impossible to simulate needle insertion, these kinds of invasive therapies must be studied in less analytical ways.

In general, both acupuncture and dry needling have relatively few risks, including

  • Temporary soreness at the sites of needle insertion
  • Bleeding at insertion sites
  • Bruising
  • Infection

If you have a blood clotting condition like hemophilia or are on an anticoagulant medication, ask your doctor if it is safe to engage in these kinds of therapies. You should also discuss these conditions with the technician performing the treatment.

In most circumstances, any adverse effects are quite minor and only temporary which is why more medical practitioners are recommending acupuncture and dry needling to their patients. Not everyone will benefit from these treatments, of course, but some will, and because the risks are so minor, it is normally worthwhile for almost every pain sufferer to at try it out to determine if it helps them.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.