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Acupuncture vs Dry Needling for Pain: Which Is the Best Option?

Updated: May 12, 2023

When it comes to acupuncture vs dry needling for pain, which is the best option? The answer may not be as clear-cut as you think.

A small wooden bowl of acupuncture needles

Acupuncture vs Dry Needling for Pain: Which Is the Best Option?

While acupuncture has been around for centuries, dry needling is a relatively new treatment method. Let's take a closer look at both options and see which one is best for you.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) technique that involves the insertion of thin needles into the skin at specific acupuncture points. This is said to help relieve muscle pain by stimulating the release of endorphins, which are the body's natural pain-relieving chemicals.[*] The acupuncture practitioner must be trained and licensed and is required to take instructional courses each year to maintain their licenses.

Acupuncture Needles

The needles cause minimal discomfort. However, they may produce a mild throbbing sensation when inserted. The practitioner may gently rotate the acupuncture needles for therapeutic benefits. The needles are left in place while you rest and relax.

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Benefits of Acupuncture

Acupuncture's founding principle is that blocked qi (pronounced "chee") causes illness. Qi is the healing energy that keeps your body healthy. A licensed acupuncturist works to unblock and return your energy flow to a state of balance by removing these blockages. Western medical acupuncture believes that the needles stimulate nerves in the nervous system.

Acupuncture can help with:

  • Nausea[*]

  • Low back pain[*]

  • Migraine[*]

  • Neck pain

  • Knee pain

  • Muscle pain

  • Chronic pain

  • Obesity and weight loss[*]

  • Rheumatoid arthritis[*]

  • Menstrual cramps

  • Hot flashes

  • High blood pressure[*]

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Acupuncture Side Effects

The likelihood of complications from acupuncture is low, with the possible exception of bruising, bleeding, temporary soreness, and discomfort at the needle site. The use of non-sterile needles, on the other hand, might result in more severe complications.

What Is Dry Needling?

Trigger point dry needling is a modern treatment that uses solid filiform needles to penetrate the skin and stimulate trigger points. The dry needles are inserted into trigger points or tight areas in muscle to release knots and relieve muscle pain. These needles remain in place for up to 30 minutes.

Physical therapists and sports injury therapists frequently perform dry needling. A dry needling therapist receives minimal training compared to acupuncturists, but they may have taken a one-time course to learn the correct techniques.

Dry Needling Techniques

Here are a couple of dry needling techniques that are commonly used:

In and Out Technique

This technique involves pricking the trigger points with the dry needles, then removing them promptly. Additional study is still required to back up this dry needling technique.

Non-Trigger Points Technique

The non-trigger points approach entails using dry needles to target areas surrounding the pain's focus rather than directly on it. This method originates from the belief that pain isn't caused by a localized issue but rather by a more widespread nerve or muscular condition.

Benefits of Dry Needling

Although dry needling is a relatively new therapy, there isn't much published research about the practice. However, one study found that dry needling was more effective than a placebo treatment.[*] Dry needling can also alleviate muscular aches and pains, sports injuries, fibromyalgia, hip pain, sciatica, and repetitive stress disorders.

Dry needling is a therapy that is not yet regulated, but it is expected to become more standardized in the future as more research is conducted.

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Dry Needling Side Effects

Dry needling may result in mild side effects, such as bruising and temporary soreness. Serious side effects are rare but can include a punctured lung, known as a pneumothorax.

There's also a risk of problems if the needles aren't sterile, for instance contracting bloodborne illnesses or developing an infection at the needle site.

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Acupressure is a form of acupuncture that uses pressure rather than needles to stimulate the acupuncture points. This therapy is often used to relieve pain and tension headaches, but it can also be used for other conditions.

Acupressure is considered a safe therapy with very few side effects. The most common side effect is temporary soreness in the pressure point area.

Dry Needling Versus Acupuncture: Which Is Right for You?

Both acupuncture and dry needling are effective treatments for pain relief with minimal side effects. Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that has been used for centuries, while dry needling is a newer method.

The main difference between dry needling and acupuncture is that acupuncture is based on the belief that illness is caused by blocked energy, while dry needling is based on the theory of trigger points.

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Acupuncture is regulated by the government, which requires practitioners to take extensive training and annual courses to maintain their license. Dry needling is largely unregulated, which may be a concern for some people.

Both dry needling and acupuncture can be used to treat a variety of conditions, but acupuncture has more research to support its efficacy. If you're considering either treatment, talk to your doctor or a trained practitioner to see if it's right for you.

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Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site, including text, graphics, images, and other material, is provided solely for informational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your specific condition.

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