Dry needling and acupuncture are often used in the same context, to describe similar treatments, but are they the same thing? Our guide aims to show the difference between dry needling and acupuncture, from their traditions through to applications.
What’s the Difference Between Dry Needling and Acupuncture?
Whilst dry needling and acupuncture are similar in some regards, they do have a few key differences:
Age of Needling vs Acupuncture
One of the obvious differences between acupuncture and dry needling is their age. Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat pain and minor ailments, whereas dry needling is thought to have been used for the first time in the 1950s.
Another difference between dry needling and acupuncture is that they tend to be used to treat different conditions.
Dry needling is incredibly helpful in dealing with acute onset, musculoskeletal related conditions, such as Whiplash. Within 5 – 10 minutes of treatment, you can restore a huge amount of painless range of motion (ROM).
What is more, dry needling has a role in dealing with Triggerpoints*, so you can expect very quick (but short lived) results in longer term conditions. In our beginners’ courses, you would explore how to best implement your dry needling skills alongside your other modalities for maximum effect.
Acupuncture has a much broader application, and as you will see by the huge list of conditions we cover in our foundation courses, its breadth overlaps with dry needling in the realm of pain reduction. Alongside persistent and acute onset pain, acupuncture is frequently used for systemic issues such as hot flushes, overactive bladder syndrome, anxiety and general wellbeing.
However, we are huge advocates of combining both acupuncture and dry needling to maximise results. Sometimes, neither dry needling nor acupuncture will completely resolve the problem, but when used together, treatment may be more effective.
Evidence Base on Acupuncture vs Dry Needling
f you check out our online resources, a couple of things should be clear. First of all, there is an abundance of literature focusing on acupuncture, including a number of high quality studies that support the application of acupuncture for various ailments, primarily centred around the use of acupuncture for pain.
In contrast, there are very few studies that have investigated the benefits of dry needling, and the quality of these studies do not stand up to the strength of its acupuncture compatriot. This leaves dry needling open to criticism, as the research evidence-based-centric viewpoint of some healthcare professionals deem high quality evidence to be a prerequisite to the implementation of any intervention.
However, dry needling does have a saviour. If we remove the underpinning ideology of acupuncture vs dry needling, we are left with two very similar interventions; both involve inserting needles. And if we take this fundamental similarity, we can allow dry needling to Piggyback onto the acupuncture literature, particularly where we look at the immediate physiological effects of needle insertion (such as changes to pro-inflammatory mediators, and blood flow within brain regions that interpret threat perception).
Dry Needling vs Acupuncture Application
Broadly speaking, dry needling has two methods. First, vigorous needling: this is the needling equivalent of Piñata whacking, attacking Triggerpoint and holding no mercy. The sensation is often described as “intense”, which is fantastic for quick acting relief, however not so good for long term goals.
Second, gentle needling: this is the needling equivalent of a silk cloth being drawn gently across the skin. Stealth and subtly are the mantra here, its application is best suited for dealing with long-term issues.
Acupuncture conversely, has one main application**, and that is to attain Deqi. Deqi is perhaps best described as a sensation that is not sharp, scratchy or intensely painful. If your client feels like they may vomi, or that their limbs feel hot, you’ve gone too far. Common descriptions of Deqi include aches, warm, spreading, heavy and weird.
In summary, the main difference between dry needling and acupuncture is that dry needling is more about the technicians ‘feel’, whereas acupuncture is all about the recipients’ sensation.
*There is debate surrounding the use of the term Triggerpoint. Feel free to insert whatever term you prefer, the application and outcome remain consistent.
**This isn’t entirely true, the many variants of acupuncture would require a lot more description than which is suitable for a blog post! But, in the vast majority of cases, Deqi is sought.