Needles to Help with Pain: Ancient vs. Modern Techniques

Needles to Help with Pain: Ancient vs. Modern Techniques

Most people, both sedentary and athletic, suffer from either acute or constant pain. We know something hurts but aren’t sure exactly what is causing it. Also, we don’t know how to make the soreness stop without resorting to pain medication. Analgesics, unfortunately, only mask the discomfort and do nothing to solve the underlying issue. Despite our best efforts through the application of heat/cold, resting, stretching, and even foam rolling, we must resort to professional help.

For thousands of years, practitioners have used needles to help ease patient ailments, including pain. Two main forms of needle therapy are acupuncture and dry needling. While these two practices appear similar on the surface since both involve the insertion of thin needles into the body, there are three key differences. Understanding these nuances will help you decide which technique may best address your condition.  

Foundation – East vs. West

Since its origin in China around 4000 years ago, the practice of acupuncture has spread around the world. It is the primary treatment protocol of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The foundation of TCM is the balance of Yin and Yang – the duality and unity of opposites that create a whole. Cold & Hot. Wet & Dry. Night & Day. Solid & Hollow. Passive & Active. Both Yin and Yang are always present in everyone.

Needles to Help with Pain: Ancient vs. Modern Techniques, house

An alteration in their ratio brings about a change in someone’s state of health. TCM is concerned with blood, energy, and body fluids, particularly the balance of Yin and Yang within each. The fundamental belief of acupuncture is that illness results from blocked or interrupted Qi (pronounced “chi”), which provides the body with natural healing energy. Acupuncture tends to be part of a holistic treatment plan to return a patient to balance rather than just a technique to treat pain in isolation.

The history of dry needling can be traced back to the work of Dr. Janet Travell in the 1940s. Her identification of muscular “trigger points” and their associated pain referral patterns form the foundation of this Western medicine needle technique. Practitioners utilize both anatomical and neurophysiological principles to evaluate movement impairments and address myofascial pain manifestations. Diagnosing and treating the root cause of muscle pain, ultimately providing relief, is the objective of most dry needling sessions.

Needle Placement – Meridians vs. Trigger Points

Needles to Help with Pain: Ancient vs. Modern Techniques, acupuncture

Acupuncture treatment is an “energy-balancing” treatment. To orchestrate the energy movement required for healing, a practitioner inserts needles into specific acupuncture points. These points provide access to the body’s meridians through which energy flows. A map of these meridians and points looks like a transit map with subway lines and stations along with them.

Dry needling treatment is a trigger point release treatment. The muscle in which you feel pain is often not where that pain is originating. Once a patient explains the symptoms they are experiencing, a practitioner consults trigger point charts to find where that pain is likely being referred from. Trigger points in that secondary area are needled, and pain in the initial site is relieved.  

Needles to Help with Pain: Ancient vs. Modern Techniques, needles

Duration – Extended vs. Short

Acupuncture points exist in all areas of the body. To effectively address the movement of energy along the meridians, several points are treated at once along one or more meridians. In many cases, the needles remain in place for 20 minutes or more while the patient lays still and relaxes.

Trigger points also exist in all areas of the body but aren’t visualized along organized lines. Instead, they tend to be clustered together, sometimes directly in the painful muscle, but occasionally at some distance from the patient’s area of discomfort. A needle goes into a contracted or spasming muscle, causing the muscle to twitch and release. The treatment lasts only as long as it takes for the muscle to stop twitching, typically 5-10 seconds.

In summary:

  1. Acupuncture is based on ancient Eastern Traditional Chinese Medicine. It facilitates the flow of natural healing energy through the body to bring Yin and Yang into balance to treat illness. Dry needling is based on Western medicine’s understanding of our anatomical and nervous systems. It directly treats myofascial pain through the stimulation and release of muscular trigger points.
  2. During an acupuncture treatment, needles are inserted into points along established meridians or energy pathways. During a dry needling treatment, needles are inserted into areas of muscle pain or tension.
  3. Needles inserted during an acupuncture treatment can remain in the patient for 20 minutes or more. In dry needling, the needle is inserted, manipulated, and often removed within 5-10 seconds. 

While both techniques involve needles, that is where the similarity between acupuncture and dry needling ends. If you are seeking a long term, holistic wellness plan of which pain relief is a part, acupuncture is an excellent avenue to explore. Suppose you have muscle soreness that you aren’t able to resolve yourself. In that case, dry needling can provide the immediate relief you seek.

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