Being an acupuncture clinic we are often asked about the difference between acupuncture and dry needling. There is a lot of confusion around this topic as the two appear to be identical so hopefully we can clear things up a little in this article.
What Is Dry Needling?
Dry needling dates back to the 1940s when researchers were experimenting with the injection of anaesthetic and other solutions into tender points to alleviate musculoskeletal pain. They found that even just the insertion of a hypodermic needle achieved similar pain relief results to that of actual injections of anaesthetic. This became a treatment method for working with the increasingly popular theory of “myofascial trigger points” that had been popularised by the work or Janet Travell (personal physician to John F. Kennedy) and her associate David Simons.
Myofascial trigger points are hyper-irritable tender points within tight bands of skeletal muscle. These points can be “active” where they are actively referring pain or dysfunction (which may be elsewhere in the body), or “inactive” where they are not currently causing any pain but will elicit a painful response when palpated.
In the 1970s China started to open up to the west which resulted in a lot of interest in acupuncture. Soon the same tools and techniques of Chinese acupuncture were incorporated into the treatment of myofascial trigger points. This is how the modern practice of dry needling came to appear very similar to acupuncture.
How Is It Different From Acupuncture?
First of all it’s important to realise that even though the theory of myofascial trigger points developed independently of Chinese acupuncture theory, a similar understanding and treatment exists within acupuncture called “ashi” needling. Ashi translates literally to “oh yes” which is the type of involuntary reaction someone will give when one of the tender ashi or trigger points are palpated. In the trigger point therapy world they call this the “jump response” or an “involuntary vocalisation”.
It is also important to note that many modern sources will contrast acupuncture to dry needling by stating that acupuncture works by balancing the body’s energy compared with dry needling working on the muscular anatomy of the body. This is a gross misunderstanding of traditional Chinese medicine theory. The term “qi” (pronounced chi), is often translated as energy, but Chinese is a contextual language and so it cannot be usefully translated to one word in English. The qi used in medical texts actually refers to physiological functions of the body as well as circulation of blood, oxygen and vital nutrients.
Essentially, the treatment style of dry needling already existed as ashi needling within the umbrella of traditional acupuncture therapy, which also contains many more treatment options. Of course modern trigger point research adds another level of understanding to what was already being done with acupuncture needles for thousands of years, and opens up areas of further development.
How Is The Training Different Between Acupuncture & Dry Needling?
This is an important point of difference. For a physiotherapist, chiro, osteo, or other manual therapist to be able to perform dry needling, they merely need to complete a weekend long course and are not required to keep up any level of continuing education.
For a traditional Chinese acupuncturist to be able to practice in Australia, they have to complete a 4 year bachelor degree minimum with hundreds of hours of supervised practice. Then to stay registered, an acupuncturist must keep a minimum of 20 hours of continuous learning each year to keep their skills up to date.
This means that a registered acupuncturist should be much more skilled and able to provide a safer and more comfortable treatment than a practitioner who may have only just recently completed a weekend course.
Should I Get Acupuncture Or Dry Needling For My Pain?
As a traditional Chinese acupuncture clinic, we have many treatment techniques and approaches up our sleeve to help with acute and chronic pain. Most of the time in the clinic we use a “distal” style of acupuncture which means that we use points elsewhere to area you feel pain. This approach offers fast relief and greatly reduces the risk of irritating an already painful area, which is more likely with a “local” acupuncture approach (i.e. ashi needling or dry needling). In certain cases, we still do use local ashi acupuncture (same as dry needling), but usually reserve this until the majority of pain has resolved.
Any good acupuncturist will also treat you as a whole person, rather than just a faulty painful body part. By supporting your overall health via reducing your body’s stress response, improving sleep and promoting healthy digestion, your body will be in a better state to heal and recover from any pain or injury and hopefully more resilient in the future.