Acupuncture vs Dry Needling

If you are anything like me, you set into panic as soon as you hear the word “needle”, or even worse, catch a glimpse of one. It never fails: every time I get blood drawn, I have to look away, take deep breaths, nervously wipe the sweat off my clammy hands, and talk about anything to distract myself from the *gulp* needle. Based on my recent confession, you are probably wondering how someone who does not like needles supports dry needling and implements it into daily treatment sessions. While I was very apprehensive initially, the more I learned about dry needling, the more eager I became to provide my patients with yet another impactful treatment option.

You may have heard of dry needling. You also may have heard that it is the same as acupuncture. While there are a few similarities, acupuncture and dry needling are vastly different. One similarity between these two treatments is that they both use micro-filament needles. In both cases, a very thin needle is inserted into the body, with the goal of decreasing pain.

While both approaches use the same type of needle, the history, reasoning, techniques, and effects are different.

Acupuncture has been around a lot longer than dry needling. Acupuncture is a technique derived from traditional Chinese medicine with the underlying goal to restore balance to the individual’s energy flow, or chi. Chi is believed to flow through pathways of the body; these pathways are referred to as meridians or meridian lines, which correlate with the locations of our organs. The acupuncture needles are inserted into the skin along the meridian lines but do not go into the muscle. Furthermore, there are typically several needles inserted at a time, and left in place for 15 to 30 minutes.

In contrast, dry needling is a relatively new treatment intervention with the underlying goal to decrease pain caused by muscles. The thin needles are inserted through the skin and into muscles where trigger points or problematic muscles are located. With dry needling, the needle is inserted deeper than with acupuncture. Even though it sounds somewhat displeasing, it is still a safe, low risk, and minimally invasive treatment performed by trained physical therapists. Also, the number of needles utilized with dry needling is typically fewer than those used with acupuncture. Sometimes, even as little as one needle may be used with dry needling.

Acupuncture and dry needling are also different in the duration that they are performed. Typically, needles used in dry needling are left in place for less time than those with acupuncture. With dry needling, the needles may be left in for longer than 15 minutes, but there are other techniques where it is moved in and out for less than a minute. It purely depends on the condition of the muscle, the tolerance of the patient, and the effect that the therapist is seeking.

Another significant difference between dry needling and acupuncture is the effect that the two techniques have on the individual. While it is true that the primary goal of both is to help decrease pain, there are still contrasting beliefs and outcomes depending on the treatment session. For example, it is believed that by utilizing acupuncture and placing the needles along the meridians, the energy flow through the body will rebalance. This rebalance is thought to help with different conditions involving digestive problems, stress, chronic pain, and insomnia, amongst many others. On the other hand, dry needling primarily seeks a response in the specific muscle that the needle is being inserted into. The outcome of dry needling is typically to restore balance and relaxation at the site of the trigger point, decrease the amount of pain the individual feels when that spot is massaged, and improve range of motion. Furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that dry needling may even create a response from the nervous system, which can also help decrease the pain the individual feels, provide less stress and tension, and improve sleep, amongst many other benefits as well.

One last similarity that dry needling and acupuncture share is potential side effects. The good news is since both are minimally invasive and relatively low risk, you may not even have any side effects, but it varies from person to person. One common side effect is some soreness for a day or two after your treatment session. This soreness feels similar to the muscle soreness that you would experience after a good workout. In addition, another side effect is that there could be slight bruising in the area that the needle was inserted due to a small amount of bleeding from the skin. If there is bleeding, it is usually so slight that it stops within a few seconds and you don’t even need a Band-Aid.

Dry needling sounds somewhat scary, especially if you are like me and don’t love shots or having blood drawn. However, after having been dry needled, performed dry needling, and seen the benefits this treatment has, my perspective has changed. I hope that this blog has helped shine some light on what this treatment is and maybe even helped make it seem less intimidating. 

If you are having aches and pains and think that you might be interested in trying dry needling, be sure to talk to your physical therapist about it the next time that you stop in to see us. If the idea of needles still makes your hands a little clammy, don’t worry, there are plenty of other physical therapy treatments that don’t involve needles that will still get you feeling better! Lastly, if you do not currently have a physical therapist, but have some lingering questions or curiosities, please feel free to email me at; I’m happy to chat!

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