Over the last decade, Acupuncture has become increasingly more mainstream as an alternative treatment modality to Western medicine techniques--especially for pain in the body. Studies show that Acupuncture is a non-addictive pain management technique that can provide lasting results to patients with acute or chronic pain. But what about Dry Needling? While it looks very similar to Acupuncture and is used in many of the same settings, there are some critical differences worth mentioning. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between Acupuncture and Dry Needling, and how to know what to choose as a patient. 

Acupuncture vs. Dry Needling at a Glance

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese Medicine technique dating back thousands of years. Using thin, tiny needles, Acupuncture practitioners move Qi through the meridian system within the body to treat various physical, mental, and emotional concerns. In addition to musculoskeletal conditions, and pain in the body, Acupuncture can also treat internal medicine issues ranging from gut health to depression. With a Chinese Medical approach, Acupuncture practitioners look at the whole body and any underlying conditions, rather than strictly the primary concern. From an Acupuncturist’s perspective, the pain you are feeling could be linked to other symptoms you have going on in the body. This way Acupuncture practitioners can help treat the pain, as well as the related symptoms.

Dry Needling, also known as intramuscular stimulation, recently began in the 1980s as a method of stimulating trigger points in the body with needles to reset muscles. Trigger points are tender, knotted areas within the muscle that are typically highly sensitive or painful to touch. Similar to Acupuncture, when Dry Needling is applied to these trigger points it can decrease tightness and improve blood flow to the area to reduce pain. This technique is typically used as part of a larger pain management program that could include physical therapy exercises, stretches, massage, and other techniques. 

Both Dry Needling and Acupuncture use the same stainless steel, filiform needles to treat the body.

What Training is Needed for Acupuncture vs. Dry Needling?

To practice Acupuncture legally in California, practitioners must become licensed by passing the state board exam called the California Acupuncture Licensing Examination (CALE). Qualifying for this exam requires a Master’s or Doctoral degree in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine from an accredited Acupuncture school. This 3-6 year program involves 3,000+ hours of theoretical and clinical training and reaching the required patient count in the school clinic per the student’s program. Once a practitioner passes the CALE and becomes licensed, they must complete 50 CEU’s of continuing education every two years to maintain their license to practice acupuncture. 

From state to state, Dry Needling qualifications differ, and in California, Dry Needling is actually considered illegal. In California, the medical board concluded that Dry Needling was a form of Acupuncture and could therefore only be practiced by Licensed Acupuncturists and Medical Doctors. Certification times in other states often range from 24-54 hours, with some being as little as an 18-hour course. At this time there are no official regulations or boards in place as to whom is properly qualified to perform Dry Needling. 

What are the Patient Experiences and Results Like for Each?

Acupuncture has a few different styles within it, but typically uses thin, small needles and a gentle needling technique to stimulate points on the body. After insertion, the patient will lie on the Acupuncture table and rest for a period of time (usually around 25 minutes) to relax and allow the Qi and blood to flow through the channels. Some points may be chosen local to where pain is in the body, but many distal points may also be chosen according to channel and organ theory. Patients often experience just as much relief from distal points as they do from local points. Sometimes all a patient needs is one treatment, but many times a practitioner may need to create a treatment plan. Once all sessions are complete, patients often experience long-lasting results, if not complete recovery. If a patient is experiencing more than just pain in the body, acupuncture can also address internal medicine concerns and mental or emotional issues.  

With Dry Needling, practitioners often use larger needles for a more aggressive and deeper needling technique to access trigger points in the muscle. This can sometimes be more painful and uncomfortable for the patients until the muscle releases. Patients will often experience pain relief and increased range of motion, however, results can be temporary and may not provide lasting change because they are only treating a part of the body rather than the whole. Also, patients do not get much time to relax during Dry Needling when compared to Acupuncture where they can rest during treatment.  

How to Choose Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling

Dry Needling is currently illegal in California, Oregon, Washington, and New York, so if you are residing in one of these four states your only option is Acupuncture. If you live elsewhere, consider what your primary concern is, what level of experience, history, and research you feel comfortable with, what you want your patient experience to be like, and what you can afford and/or what your insurance will cover. If you are currently looking for Acupuncture in University Heights, San Diego, Dr. Mili Shah, L.Ac, DACM has years of experience in treating acute and chronic pain in the body and specializes in a holistic approach to chronic pain, mental health, gut health, women’s health, and facial rejuvenation. Click here to book your appointment today!

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