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Acupuncture and dry needling may at first seem similar, but there are actually big differences. Some may wonder if dry needling is simply acupuncture under the auspices of another term—it’s not! Dry needling is a recently developed phenomenon, but the advent of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine arguably extends back 2500 years or more.

When making important healthcare decisions, it's important to understand the differences between dry needling and acupuncture. Dry needling is a new technique designed to release tension from sore spots in muscles known as trigger points. Acupuncture is an ancient technique consistently in practice throughout Chinese history. Its uses and methods are vastly numerous--physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual issues can be treated.

The two practices do share some similarities. Dry needling and acupuncture both use filiform needles, which are inserted into the body. These needles are very thin, sterile, usually made from stainless steel, and are one-time use.  Acupuncture and dry needling both treat pain caused by muscle irritation. Beyond these similarities, the treatments are very different.

Sports and physical therapists are the two groups of medical professionals most readily using the dry needling technique. Their training is unregulated and they require no state or national certification to do so. They primarily utilize small areas on the body known as myofascial trigger points. These sensitive points are identified by the pain and discomfort radiating from them.

On the other hand, practitioners of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine not only have the expertise to use this modern-day technique but more importantly, maintain a huge arsenal of needling methods, point prescriptions and medical theories for treating inflamed, painful muscles and surrounding areas.

Acupuncture is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine and thus a practitioner is well-versed in a comprehensive system of medical care. Some other branches of TCM include diet, meditation, bodywork, exercise and herbology. In order to gain a license in the United States,  it is necessary to attend an accredited school, amass a certain amount of hours interning and pass a national/state exam.

Each state reserves the right to dictate the legal terms of both acupuncture and dry needling. Some states such as California for example, forbid the practice of dry needling unless conducted by a licensed practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Due to the rigorous academic standards upheld in acupuncture schools, students learn the details of human anatomy. This creates a precise knowledge of where major arteries, nerves, organs and other structures reside. Knowing this prevents any adverse reaction while needling a patient. For example, certain acupuncture points on the front and back of the chest can puncture the lungs if needled too deeply.

There are acupuncture points on the body which may be contraindicated for certain patients and could be harmful. A pregnant woman is treated with great care and certain acupuncture points must be avoided or else a miscarriage may ensue. Elderly patients tend to exhibit a more delicate quality of skin and thus the needling technique needs adjustment. The treatment for infants and young children is a specialty in itself, and thus necessarily employs different methods of diagnosis, acupuncture point prescriptions and needling styles.

The sensation of a physical pain in the muscles may also have a mental or emotional component to it. Dry needling may be able release physical tension but an acupuncturist can also treat the stress that is contributing to the complaint. The accumulation of daily stress or the burden of a traumatic event, and the resultant stress is something that can be addressed.

A practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is capable of recognizing the warning signs for potentially serious or even life-threatening issues. Sometimes pain is an indication of a serious illness. It may be one of the first noticeable symptoms a patient experiences. For example, a tumor in the spinal column may cause pain, so early detection of the problem is imperative.

The choice of whether to use acupuncture or dry needling depends on whether you prefer a comprehensive system of treatment or not.  If you prefer a comprehensive treatment, see a practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental medicine.

Contact an Acupuncturist to learn how acupuncture and Oriental medicine can help you!

About the Author: Vanessa Vogel Batt, L.Ac., MSTOM, studied at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and practiced acupuncture and Oriental medicine in New York for several years. Vanessa enjoys traveling the world, and has published articles on acupuncture and Oriental medicine and related health topics for websites and publications in both the U.S. and abroad.

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