Do You Do Dry Needling?

That is a common question I am asked from patients and practitioners alike. As a result, there seems to be some confusion about the differences between dry needling and acupuncture. Addressing the issues between dry needling and acupuncture also helps to more clearly define acupuncture itself so it is not a mysterious magical therapy. In short, we will clearly define acupuncture to compare the two therapies and (hopefully) clear up the mysteries.

The most common clinicians who use dry needling (besides acupuncturists) are physical therapists. Most of physical therapy websites describe the differences between the two therapies.[1] Acupuncture is described as an energy medicine where “non-scienticfic” acupuncture points are selected along mysterious energy meridians without any regard for modern anatomical or physiological structures. There is only one big problem with this, the energy model of acupuncture is not correct.[2]

In fact, after having observed acupuncture treatments in the Chinese hospitals, I didn’t witness any provider practicing an energy medicine. Interestingly enough, several times the Chinese doctors order x-rays for patients in order to identify the patients therapeutic prognosis for treatment. That’s right, they were concerned with the patients normal physiology to responsibly practice medicine and deliver the best medical care to their patients. They weren’t waiving their hands in the air to divine mystical energy meridians. The treatments were pragmatic, effective, and useful.

I am not faulting the physical therapists for publicly displaying this erroneous definition of acupuncture. It is a definition of acupuncture that is spread by both acupuncturists and non-acupuncturists alike.[2] I’m intending correct my medical colleagues academically and to demystify acupuncture for the public.

So what is acupuncture?

The word acupuncture originates from the Latin word “acu” which means needle and the English word puncture (which is pretty straight forward). We formed the word “acu-puncture” to designate a therapy where a needle pierces the skin.[3] Acupuncture includes the use of Chinese medical concepts to select point locations and determine therapeutic principles. In my previous blog post The Trouble with Acupuncture Terminology, I reviewed the pragmatic and useful application of Chinese medical terms for human health.[4] At its core, acupuncture helps to restore health by stimulating the body’s healing processes.

One important question remains… just what is the difference between acupuncture and dry needling?

Both therapies use the same tool (filiform needle) but the description for use seems to be different. I view the term acupuncture to be an overall encompassing term, which would include dry needling. The difference just so happens to be the tissue you are trying to stimulate. While treating patients I select a location to needle and also depth along with a specific stimulation technique.

That’s right, there are different stimulation techniques. In acupuncture, you stimulate different tissues in different ways to produce a positive result. By contrast, dry needling is a way to describe needle location, depth, and stimulation that is focused on the muscles alone.

Article Authored by
Dr. Mark VanOtterloo LAc
Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine