A lot of people may be forgiven for thinking that acupuncture and dry needling are the same, particularly given that the majority of the time they use the same type of needles. However, there is in fact more differences between the two treatment techniques than there are similarities.
Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) dating back to 200BC and primarily revolves around the idea of Qi and meridian lines. Qi is frequently described as the “life force of the body” with TCM believing it must be able to flow freely throughout the body through meridian lines. Acupuncture serves to restore the flow of Qi through these meridian lines by inserting a fine needle into specific acupuncture points.
Dry needling on the other hand is quite different, and based on more modern science principles. Using the same needles as acupuncturists, dry needling involves inserting the needles into muscles (usually aiming for trigger points) with the aim of reducing pain, improving blood flow and reducing the activity of the nerves which control the muscle. The actual physiological effects that occur are quite complex, but are touched on below;
- Reducing Pain – This is probably the most complex aspect of dry needling, but involves the release of endogenous opioids (the brains own control system of reducing pain) and the ability of certain nerves within the spinal cord to dampen the pain processing of the brain.
- Improving Blood Flow – Trigger points within muscles (taut band of muscle fibre) can cause local ischemia (reduced oxygen levels) possibly due to reduced blood flow. Dry needling has shown to increase blood flow to these areas by the release of chemicals after a needle has been inserted.
- Reducing Muscle Overactivity – It is theorised that trigger points develop as a result of nerve overactivity known as spontaneous electrical activity (SEA). Dry needling has shown to influence the SEA by inducing a local twitch response (commonly felt by the patient) as the needle inserts the trigger point.
Whilst there are some well documented studies showing the benefits of dry needling for many different conditions, it’s important to note that dry needling shouldn’t be looked upon as a magic cure. Dry needling can certainly be very effective, but should always be used as an adjunct to other treatments such as a well-designed exercise and rehabilitation program addressing the factors that caused the issues in the first place. The majority of our physiotherapists at our Pro Health Care locations are experienced in the use of dry needling, so call your local clinic today to book an appointment.
Sam Townsley, Physiotherapist