Dry Needling or Acupuncture?

Have you recently received needling for a sore shoulder? Back pain? Creaky knee? Stiff neck? Who was your practitioner and what was the overall goal?

A growing number of allied and alternate therapies are fast gaining popularity in sports groups to aid with injury prevention, recovery and optimizing the players potential. But what modality is best for you? What is going to give you the most effective recovery or greatest results to compete at the top of your game?

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that dates back thousands of years and is based upon the fundamental theories of Yin and Yang*. Needles are inserted into points on the body that, for the most part, lie along specific meridians; each representing the internal organs. The breadth of conditions successfully treated by Acupuncture goes far beyond what many may understand; including pain relief, fatigue, hayfever, gynecological disorders, headaches/migraines, sports injury and much more.

During an Acupuncture treatment, the practitioner takes a detailed case history in order to ascertain a pattern of diagnosis. This diagnosis is based on the interplay of the organs and/or the influence of external pathogenic factors (for example cold, wind and heat).It’s important to consider that whilst your injury may initially be due to physical impact or trauma, your road to recovery and healing might be influenced by your overall health and constitution at the time. An acupuncturist will take these factors in to consideration, constructing a big-picture treatment plan to get you back in the game for the long term.

It is not unusual these days to hear of athletes having needling done at the Physio, Chiropractor or even Doctor but; is this the same as Acupuncture? Generally speaking; No.

Unless your practitioner has undergone a minimum four year Bachelor degree specialising in Chinese Medicine and a minimum of 1,000 hours clinical practice to attain their Acupuncture accreditations, you’ve probably experienced Dry Needling.

So, what’s the difference?

Where Acupuncture assesses thoroughly both the internal and external of a patients condition, Dry Needling deals primarily with the external signs and symptoms of musculoskeletal conditions; targeting myofascial pain that accumulates within the body as a result of injury, stress and overuse. Typically we understand these points to be trigger points, often with referring pain when pressure is applied. Whilst it is acknowledged that trigger points can be associated with systemic disease (eg. nutrition or metabolic disorders) this very rarely influences the treatment approach in Dry Needling. Practical, hands on training for a Dry Needling course is quite often completed in a matter of weekends. Dry Needling classically involves insertion and immediate removal of the needle to elicit a twitch or aching response; thus releasing the congestion of muscle fibers causing pain.

In the realm of musculoskeletal conditions, Acupuncture has a somewhat similar approach however, can take this one step further. When an athlete chooses Acupuncture as a treatment means, the diagnosis becomes far greater than simply the presentation of pain. Rather than accept the injury as not improving, a good Acupuncturist should ask themself; why is this injury not improving? When the underlying cause is addressed, recovery and maintenance are far more likely to be sustained.

In terms of treatment, Acupuncture needles are inserted into specific point locations on the body; each pertaining to different organs and are then retained for around 15-40 minutes (dependant on the condition being treated). The hundreds of acupuncture points available are carefully selected for the individual patient based on their specific presentation and underlying patterns. Where appropriate, auxillary techniques such as cupping, moxibustion and Tui Na massage are also employed by the Acupuncturist in order to maximise treatment outcomes for patients.

So, whilst both effective, the differences between Acupuncture and Dry Needling are vast. Next time you pull up sore on the bench, ask yourself; what treatment is best for me?

*Whilst some of these terms may seem a little foreign or unusual, Yin and Yang are essentially categories your Chinese Medicine practitioner might use to understand your case. Within every diagnosis there is a component of Yin and Yang. Simply put; blood flow/circulation, tissue regeneration, muscle tension and inflammation can all be broken down in to the overall balance of your Yin and Yang.


For further reading on Acupuncture and Dry needling, check out the following references;

  1. Dommerholt, J & Fernandez-de-les-Penas, C 2013, Trigger point dry needling: an evidence and clinical-based approach, Elsevier, China.
  2. Legge D, 2011, Close to the bone: the treatment of musculo-skeletal disorder with acupuncture and other forms of Chinese medicine, 3rd edn, Sydney College Press, NSW.
  3. Maciocia, G 2012, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2nd Ed, Elsevier, China.
  4. Janz, S & Adams, J, Acupuncture by another Name; Dry Needling in Australia, Australian Journal of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, 2011, Vol. 6, Issue. 2, pp. 3-11. https://www.kenmorecentreforhealth.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/AJACM-2011-6-2-Acupuncture-by-Another-Name-Janz-Adams.pdf

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