As treatment options, dry needling and acupuncture have some aspects in common. Most notably, they both use small-gauge needles and are focused on alleviating physical issues that range from annoying to chronic.
But despite the seeming similarities, they're very different when it comes to why they're done and how they work. Here's a quick overview:
Dry needling: Due to injury, repetitive motion, or muscle overuse, people sometimes develop tight bands within a muscle, called trigger points. Once a practitioner locates a trigger point through an assessment, a thin needle is inserted to cause the point to release lactic acid that has built up. This often brings immediate relief in loosening stiff muscles, easing joint pain, and improving oxygen flow to the muscles so that the body can heal itself.
Acupuncture: A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a way to balance the flow of energy within the body, called qi or chi. This energy is believed to flow through specific pathways in the body, and by inserting thin needles, a practitioner can correct any stagnation or improper flow. Many Western practitioners also view acupuncture as a way to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue and increase blood flow as a result.
Major differences: In addition to the fundamental difference in the basics, it's important to note that dry needling is used as part of a treatment plan that also incorporates physical therapy, movement analysis, and other interventions.
Acupuncture is often considered a lone treatment in and of itself. A practitioner may bring in complementary options like herbal supplements or cupping, but in general, acupuncture stands alone while dry needling is just one aspect of a multi-pronged plan.
Like any treatment, it is important to talk to your physical therapist to outline your goals and determine if dry needling would be a good option to add to your treatment plan.
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