I’m often asked what the difference is between acupuncture and dry needling.
Acupuncture, or acus (needle) pungere (prick), is the application of a thin needle into the skin and is a core component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In TCM, the whole body is managed based on the belief of an energy system in which energy, known as ‘Qi’ (air/breath), flows through specific channels (meridians).
Disease or disorders are a result of the imbalance of the energy system. Acupuncture is used to restore the normal flow of energy, normalising the body functions and relieving pain.
The selection of points for acupuncture can be local, distal or symptomatic. Ashi points are tender spots found in the region of dysfunction. In clinical practice, these Ashi points are often trigger points.
Dry needling is usually referred to as the insertion of ‘dry’ acupuncture needles, without injection or medication, into trigger points in muscles or myofascial (connective tissue that covers the muscles). Dry needling doesn’t usually target meridians or areas associated with internal organs, as in TCM acupuncture practice.
Physiotherapists have embraced the use of dry needling for over three decades. With thorough knowledge and understanding of anatomy, biomechanics and pathophysiology, physiotherapists are in a unique position to apply dry needling effectively and with precision, based on clinical reasoning and differential diagnosis skillset.
Dry needling can be applied in acute and chronic conditions to reduce pain and improve joint mobility. It can also increase skin and muscle blood flow. With a muscle twitch, it can ‘flush out’ pain substances in the body tissues. Relief of pain symptoms can be achieved through activation of large mechanoreceptors, which reduce the ‘on’ transmission of pain signals to the brain.
There has been growing evidence in support of physiotherapists using dry needling in the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions. Some of the examples include acute and chronic back pain, chronic neck pain, migraines, knee osteoarthritis, shoulder pain, and lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow).
When carried out by experienced and appropriately trained physiotherapists, side effects of dry needling are relatively minimal compared to medication or surgery. Some common side effects include soreness, lightheadedness, bruising and nausea. Most side effects will disappear within a few minutes, a few hours or a day or two.