Acupuncture versus Dry Needling

Dr. Carl Clarkson • November 26, 2020

Bathing in the soothing milk of satisfaction, you savour the serenity. Alas, today was a good day. The beasts that threatened your pleasure zone were thwarted, using only your guile and a flick of your eyebrow to banish them to the Cave of Contempt. And yet, a niggle remains deep in your mind, and you carry out your mental checklist. Yes, the Farsafel Fiend was defeated. No, there are no metal objects in your microwave. The lawn….THE LAWN!!!! Damn it, you think, I must attend to it….But this is not the niggle.

And then it appears.

Just what IS the difference between acupuncture and dry needling? Hath no fear brave warrior, your niggle will wither like a cheap digestive in overly pungent cats milk, once you have read the text below.

1. Age

If these needling titans were Star Wars characters, dry needling would be Luke Skywalker and acupuncture, of course, would be Yoda. Acupuncture has been around for THOUSANDS of years, whereas the first reference we have of dry needling is around the 1950’s.

2. Conditions treated

Dry Needling is supremely helpful in dealing with acute onset, MSK related conditions, such as Whiplash. Within 5 – 10 minutes, you can restore a huge amount of painless 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, I am a HUGE advocate of combining the two to maximise results. You know, Vadar could have given the Emperor a run for his money, and Luke had a good stab at defeating ol’ Crinkle Face, and yet neither Jedi were successful. But when the famous Father-Son combined….Bosh, sorted him out in a jiffy!

*Yes, there is debate on using the term Triggerpoint. But, feel free to insert whatever term you use instead of Triggerpoint, the application and outcome remain consistent despite what phrase we use.

3. Evidence base

If you check out our online resources, a couple of things should smash you in the face like an over-enthusiastic, smooch wielding Grandma. First of all, there is LOADS of literature focusing on acupuncture. Granted, not all of it is exceptional quality, but there are a number of very high quality studies that support the application of acupuncture for various ailments, primarily within 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 pre-requisite to the implementation of any intervention.

However, Dry Needling does have a saviour: if we remove the underpinning ideology of acupuncture and Dry Needling, we are left with two very similar interventions – they 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).

4. Application

Broadly speaking, Dry Needling has two methods. First, vigorous needling: this is the needling equivalent of Piñata whacking – you bash the living daylights of the Trigger Point, and hold no mercy! It is fair to say that the sensation is often described as “intense”……Fantastic for quick acting relief, not so good for longer term goals.

Second, we have gentle needling: this is the needling equivalent of a silk cloth being drawn gently across the skin. Stealth and subtly are the mantra here, it’s application best suited for dealing with longer-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 vomit on your face, or that they are convinced you have just poured molten lava onto their limb, you’ve gone TOO FAR! Common descriptions of Deqi include ache, warm, spreading, heavy and weird.

In summary, dry needling is more about the technicians ‘feel’, whereas acupuncture is all about the recipients’ sensation.

*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.

Having taught acupuncture and dry needling for over 10 years, it will be no surprise that I am an advocate of both needling principles, being extremely useful skills when delivered with care and attention. Not only do all of our needling courses cover the concepts discussed above in depth, learners finish their learning feeling confident, safe and effective in their needling skills. If you have any queries, please feel free to get in touch here, or alternatively if you would like to host a course, request one here.

Or, if you need a hand slaying beasts, drop me a line and I’ll sharpen my Sambodian Chopping Axe!

Dr. Carl Clarkson

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