Dry Needling vs Acupuncture - how to tell the difference

by Rachael Forrest


Many patients tell us they have had acupuncture from their GP, physiotherapist or osteopath and each time we try to explain the difference between what they offer and what we offer.  Then, in an internet trawl I found this useful description from a journal called News Transcript in the US, of both practices which I thought I should pass on.

"In 2015, the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy developed this definition of dry needling performed by physical therapists:“Dry needling is a skilled technique performed by a physical therapist using filiform needles to penetrate the skin and/or underlying tissues to affect change in a body structures and function for the evaluation and management of neuromuscular conditions, pain, movement impairments and disability.” It is important to clarify that dry needling is not acupuncture. Acupuncture is a treatment based on eastern medical diagnosis that requires training in traditional Chinese medicine and licensure to practice acupuncture. “While dry needling performed by physical therapists and acupuncture use a similar tool, the filiform needle, the differences are evident in the evaluative tools used by the practitioner, the assessment, the application and the overall intended goal.” (Kinetacore, 2015)"

This sums up neatly the most important difference between the two.  We acupuncturists are trained to use the complex and intricate Chinese Medical theory to diagnose and then treat whatever a patient presents to us.  Even though the terminology of Chinese Medicine might sound archaic, it describes exactly what is presented just using different words. Where a doctor might say "migraine" we say "liver yang rising" and where an osteopath might say "arthritis" someone trained in Chinese Medicine would say "Bi syndrome" but we are all describing the same thing.

Simply sticking a needle into a place where there's pain might well do the trick but Acupuncture is carried out after a much more detailed diagnosis.  We look at the whole person - the body, the emotions and the mind - as well as the environment that the person is in - their work, home life, eating and exercise habits - to find out why the symptoms have appeared and what the cause is.  This is what makes Acupuncture so much more effective than dry needling and why we can look at treating more complex situations like depression, insomnia, digestive issues and fertility.

image: biomechanicshealthcare

image: biomechanicshealthcare

Another important difference is that a dry needling course is usually carried out over a weekend whereas a full trained (British Acupuncture Council member) acupuncturist will have completed a 3-4 year, Masters level, course which covers anatomy, physiology, pathology, medical ethics and patient management as well as Chinese Medicine.  The depth of knowledge the Acupuncture course is phenomenal and there is no way that a weekend course could compare.

In summary, we would recommend trying dry needling from your GP or physio if they offer it for pain relief, but don't be put off if it doesn't work and do seek out a properly qualified acupuncturist if you have anything more complex going on.