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Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture: Which is Better?

Sticking needles into your skin may sound like a ridiculous idea, but believe it or not, many people who suffer from injuries and painful conditions rely on needles as an alternative treatment for relieving pain and discomfort.

Dry needling and acupuncture are well-known practices that involve puncturing the skin with thin, stainless steel needles for therapeutic purposes. While both treatments claim to provide relief from pain, these practices have unique qualities that make them very different.

Acupuncture is traditionally used to ease pain, discomfort, or issues by opening up your chi or healing energy, while dry needling is designed to stimulate your trigger points or irritable muscles. Acupuncturists insert needles into your skin to release endorphins and affect your nervous system, while dry needling therapists attempt to release tension from knots and pressure points in your muscles.

Managing your pain is not as easy as it seems, especially if you don’t know its root causes. Let’s take a closer look at dry needling vs. acupuncture and find out which type of treatment is right for you.

What is Dry Needling?

This modern treatment involves inserting several filiform needles into trigger points or the tight areas or knots in your muscles. Dry needling therapists say the needles help release the knot and relieve any muscle pain or spasms. The dry needles used for this practice contain no liquid, so no fluid is injected into your body.

Dry needling is typically performed by physical and sports injury therapists. The most common technique involves leaving the needles in the skin for 10-30 minutes. Its other techniques include:

The in-and-out technique

Also called pistoning or sparrow pecking, this technique involves inserting the dry needle into a trigger point and removing it right away. Unlike the most common technique, the needles go in and out quickly and don’t stay inserted in your skin for too long.

The non-trigger points technique

This technique involves inserting needles in areas around the point of pain instead of a knot or trigger point. Based on the idea that pain is the result of a greater nerve or muscular issue, the non-trigger points technique aims to treat your central nervous system.

Benefits of Dry Needling

It’s often hard to tell whether a dry needling therapist has adequate experience or can conduct the procedure correctly. Despite its growing popularity, dry needling is still a relatively new practice.

Research on needling is also limited but a 2013 study proved that dry needling is more effective than a placebo treatment. In fact, dry needling is beneficial to those who suffer from muscle pain and sports injuries. It is also used to help address certain conditions, including:

  • Fibromyalgia – Characterized by fatigue, sleeping problems, mental distress, and widespread pain all over the body.
  • Hip Pain – Swelling, tenderness, and stiffness of the pelvic area.
  • Sciatica – Pain radiating from the lower back up to the hips and buttocks and down each leg. It usually affects only one side of the body.
  • Repetitive Stress Disorder – The gradual buildup of damage to nerves, tendons, and muscles from repetitive activities, awkward motions, and muscle fatigue.

While the primary aim is to address neuromuscular conditions, dry needling may also help improve flexibility, speed up recovery, and increase your range of motion. Although this practice is currently unregulated, safe dry needling methods are expected to be standardized as more research becomes available.

Dry Needling Side Effects

While dry needling doesn’t require formal training, certifications, or licensure, the practice is usually considered safe as long as the therapist uses sterile needles. Otherwise, the patient is at risk of contracting bloodborne illnesses, infection, and diseases.

Side effects associated with dry needling are mild and commonly occur around the injection site. They include:

  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Temporary soreness

Be sure your dry needling therapist uses sterile needles and disposes of them after each use to avoid serious side effects.

What is Acupuncture?

Rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, this procedure has been widely used for thousands of years to treat a variety of medical conditions. Its primary philosophy is that the body can be healed when chi, or energy flow, is released.

Performed by extensively trained and licensed practitioners, this alternative treatment involves inserting needles at strategic points to stimulate your nerves to release endorphins, which are your brain’s natural painkillers. This stimulation process helps relieve pain and muscle tension.

Acupuncturists are required to take instructional courses each year to maintain their license. Those who aspire to become expert acupuncturists should undergo training for three or more years until they learn to identify symptoms, diagnose conditions, and use correct techniques with needles.

Acupuncture involves lying on a padded table for the treatment, which involves:

Needle insertion.

Typically, your acupuncturist will insert between 5-20 needles at strategic points on your body. The needles are very thin and cause little to no discomfort. However, when a needle reaches the correct depth, you may feel a mild aching sensation.

Needle manipulation.

After insertion, your acupuncturist may gently move or twirl the needles for therapeutic purposes. In some instances, heat or mild electrical pulses are applied to the needles for added manipulation.

Needle removal

In most cases, your acupuncturists will leave the needles in place for 10-20 minutes while you lie still and relax. Usually, no discomfort is felt during needle removal.

Benefits of Acupuncture

Widely accepted as a medical treatment, a wide body of research supports the use of acupuncture for relieving stress, pain, and discomfort. Based on the fundamental belief that illness is the result of blocked or interrupted chi, acupuncture seeks to remove these blockages and restore your energy flow to a state of balance.

Acupuncture is beneficial to people with various symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, menstrual cramps, labor-related pain, and allergies. This practice is most often used to help address certain conditions, including:

  • Lower Back Pain – Often a result of injuries, such as muscle strains or sprains due to heavy lifting, sudden movements, and poor body mechanics.
  • Neck Pain & Stiffness – Often a result of strains, poor posture, or osteoarthritis.
  • Tension Headaches or Migraines – A recurring type of headache characterized by a throbbing or pulsing feeling on the sides of the head.
  • Osteoarthritis – Also called wear-and-tear arthritis, this condition is the most common type of arthritis characterized by swollen and painful joints due to cartilage breakdown.

Aside from physical pain, some people use acupuncture to treat depression and dependence on substances.

Acupuncture Side Effects

Acupuncture risks and side effects are very rare if performed by a trained and licensed acupuncturist. Occasionally, you may experience:

  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Pain at the injection site

However, using non-sterile needles could lead to complications and serious side effects.

Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture: Which is Better?

Now that you’ve learned about dry needling and acupuncture benefits and risks, perhaps you’ve asked yourself: which is better as a treatment option? Believe it or not, the choice boils down to a matter of preference.

On one hand, acupuncture is a well-regulated practice backed by more definitive research. If you prefer a well-established alternative treatment option from a highly trained practitioner, acupuncture may be more beneficial for you.

On the other hand, dry needling is a newer practice with no formal regulations in place, so research on its effectiveness is limited. However, if you’re willing to try something less established that offers promising results, dry needling may be worth a try.

In addition, dry needling is not advisable for pregnant women, while acupuncture is proven to be extremely beneficial and effective during pregnancy. If you’re simply looking to relieve muscle pain and tightness, dry needling is a promising option. But if you’re seeking treatment for a certain medical condition, acupuncture is the way to go.

You may either feel relaxed or energized after undergoing any of the two procedures. However, not everyone responds the same to both treatment options. If your symptoms don’t begin to improve within a few weeks, then one or the other or both may not be right for you. Keep in mind that dry needling or acupuncture are not meant to replace conventional medical procedures such as physiotherapy or surgery.

That’s why it’s important to consult your healthcare provider and look for highly trained practitioners before trying any of the procedures. Hopefully, this blog will help you decide what treatment option is best for your condition.

Partner with LifeClinic for Your Recovery

Relieve your pain and discomfort when you partner with LifeClinic for your recovery. We offer the best dry needling and acupuncture services that will restore, maintain, and optimize human function. Start your journey to a pain-free life and visit a LifeClinic location near you today.

Dr. Reza Alizadeh

Dr. Reza is the visionary behind LifeClinic. His leadership is the foundation for the patient and team member experience, and overall direction of the LifeClinic. As the creator of IMJT, Dr. Reza continues to be the primary teacher on this technique.

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