Sometimes people ask me if acupuncture is the same as dry needling. There is some debate about the two practices within the professional community, and the obvious similarities between them make for an understandable amount of confusion. With that in mind, I’ll try to answer the question: “What’s the difference between acupuncture vs dry needling?”
Acupuncture is one part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), one of the oldest existing forms of traditional medicine. It is based on thousands of years of practice, and influenced by modern scientific research. Fine surgical steel needles are inserted into particular acupuncture points on the body to affect the flow of qi (pronounced “chee”, and roughly translated as “energy”) along theoretical pathways known as meridians. According to TCM theory, by regulating the flow of qi or balancing the different types of qi, pain is reduced and health is restored. Traditionally, acupuncture has a broad range of applications, not just for aches and pains.
Dry needling is a comparatively new discipline. The same fine needles are inserted into “trigger points” (tender points of knotted muscle) and manipulated to help reduce muscle tension. It is used only for musculo-skeletal issues and is particularly popular amongst physiotherapists.
So what’s the same? Well, the obvious bit is the needles. Dry needling uses acupuncture needles, and why not? They do the job, and they were already mass produced for acupuncturists when dry needling became popular.
Perhaps not so obviously, the points used are the same. Within acupuncture there is a traditional point called an ah shi point (literally translated as “oh yes!”, ’cause that’s what people say when you press it), which is a tender point of knotted muscle. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s right; that’s what a trigger point is. Acupuncturists have been using them for a long time.
Some people who have experienced both may suggest that the needling techniques are different – and this may be true, depending on the style of acupuncture used. Once the needles are inserted the practitioner may manipulate the needles (literally playing with them -lifting, spinning, thrusting etc.) to induce sensations at the point (in TCM these sensations are called de qi). Different styles and practitioners of TCM place greater or lesser emphasis on de qi depending on their school of thought. Japanese style acupuncture, for instance, generally uses super thin needles and uses no manipulation to induce de qi. Most dry needling practitioners (and traditional Chinese style acupuncturists) use heavy manipulation to induce strong sensations.
This means that some people would argue that dry needling is effectively a subset of acupuncture – the practice of ah shi theory.
What’s different? Well, the name – and that may seem like a small point, but it sure does get some people worked up. You see, in 2012 acupuncture and TCM became a registered profession. That means that from that time, in order to call yourself an “acupuncturist” or advertise your service as “acupuncture”, you have to be registered. This means a minimum 4 year university degree to begin with, and a whole bunch of other stuff (insurance, further education etc). This does not apply if you advertise your service as “dry needling”.
Here’s where things get heated up. Acupuncturists who have attained registration and are also of the opinion that dry needling is part of acupuncture would argue that dry needling should be held to the same standards. This would bar most practitioners of dry needling from advertising that service.
Registration of health practitioners is an attempt to safeguard the public from untrained and unsafe practices. Therefore registration standards should be the same across all professions for any given practice. Realistically, there is also professional pride and market competition involved in the debate.
Importantly, the other main difference between the two practices is their scope of application. While dry needling is used only for musculo-skeletal painful conditions, acupuncture has been used to treat a much wider variety of illness, including migraines, allergic rhinitis and post-operative nausea, to name a few. (For more info on applications, go to http://acupuncture.org.au/OURSERVICES/Publications/AcupunctureEvidenceProject.aspx
to see the latest evidence)