Acupuncture vs. Dry Needling

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Acupuncture vs. Dry Needling

Dry needling or myofascial trigger point therapy is the practice of releasing knots within the muscles known as trigger points in order to treat pain associated with injuries.

It is called dry needling because, unlike a hypodermic needle, there is no exchange of fluids in or out of the tissues. This term has been used as a way to disguise what is actually one of the many techniques used by acupuncturists so that it can be used by practitioners who are not. Trigger points are known to acupuncturists as ‘ah shi’ points and they are just one of the many aspects of painful conditions that we are able to treat.

On July 1st 2012 in Australia, acupuncture practitioners became registered under the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) along with other nationally registered health professions such as medical practitioners, nurses, dentists and pharmacists etc. This now means that people without the adequate skills or training do not meet the strict requirements of the Chinese Medicine Board of Australia under AHPRA, and can not call themselves an acupuncturist.

The needles themselves are not regulated however, and practitioners in other fields can still undertake short courses in training to provide ‘dry needling’, which is essentially an acupuncture technique performed without anywhere near the same amount of training. This can often lead to adverse reactions when points are potentially overstimulated or attempts are made to release trigger points where it is not necessary. Or worse still, vital organs may be pierced due to inadequate knowledge of underlying human anatomy in relation to needling sites on the surface of the skin. Research in Australia has shown that practitioners with minimal training have more than double the rate of adverse events than properly qualified practitioners.

Acupuncture is very safe when administered by a well-trained practitioner. Complications and serious injury are not a result of acupuncture, but that of poorly trained practitioners with inadequate training and practice.

Here are a few points to give you an idea of the difference in experience between someone who practices dry needling and an AHPRA registered acupuncturist –

In order to become an acupuncturist today in Australia, you must have completed a Bachelor of Health Science (or equivalent) majoring in Acupuncture. This is a 4-year course, that in its most recent course review as offered by Endeavour College of Natural Health, has students perform 120 hours of practical needling classes before they are even allowed to treat a member of the public, and then a further 550 hours of training in a supervised student clinic. Only after this are new graduates deemed competent by AHPRA as qualified acupuncture practitioners.

One of the biggest differences between dry needling from a practitioner who has undertaken a short coarse and a treatment from a registered acupuncturist is about 700 hours practice.

If you type ‘dry needling course in Brisbane’ into Google, you will see a list of courses available that may take you up to 2 weeks or as little as 12 hours to complete before being able to perform dry needling on the public. One course even boasts, “You’ll be practicing within 30 minutes of arriving at your course”, and then only 12 hours of practice later, you are all set to treat your patients. This is barely enough time for practitioners who may have never even seen an acupuncture needle to learn the very basics about needling in order to provide temporary pain relief.

This is available for anyone who holds an accreditation in the following fields:

  • Remedial massage therapist
  • Myotherapist
  • Musculoskeletal therapist
  • Osteopath
  • Medical practitioner
  • Physiotherapist
  • Chiropractor

If you have received dry needling from any of these therapists, please be aware that this is NOT acupuncture.

Granted these practitioners are registered professionals in their own field, however, in my opinion, it takes more than 12 hours or even 2 weeks to gain an understanding of the dexterity and sensitivity required to wield a needle in such a way as to gain optimum therapeutic effects with little pain or discomfort. Trigger point release is just one of the many techniques that acupuncturists are qualified to treat. And as we treat holistically, we also take into consideration the root cause of the problem in order to determine the best treatment approach.

As an acupuncturist, I was admittedly fearful for the entire first year of my course to even go near my own body with a needle, let alone another human being. There are certain subtle sensations that you can feel when manipulating an acupuncture needle that takes years to understand what is happening beneath the surface of the skin. These subtleties can only be properly understood following hours and hours of repetitive training over months and years, not just a number of hours or days.

Before acupuncture, I was a professional musician and I liken the feel of the needle to the vibration you feel when playing the guitar. Certain minute changes in vibration can be felt through the fingertips due to sensitivity acquired after years of playing the same notes and chords. Only a slight movement of the wrist or fingers can mean the difference between playing a melodic sequence of chords to it not even being music. Much in the same way, if you do not know what you are doing when you are needling delicate points around the rib cage or abdomen, you may very well end up piercing a vital organ such as the lungs and you may not even know that you have done it.

So if you are seeking pain relief, do yourself a favour and search for your local acupuncturist. We cover “dry needling” and every other needle technique you can think of to obtain the best results for what your body needs.

Here is a quick video explaining some of the key differences.

Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd 2013, Dry Needling Patient Information Sheet, AACMA Website,
Information%20Sheets/IS13001_Patient_InformationSheet_DryNeedling.pdf, (accessed 4 August 2016)

About the Author:

Chris Fehres lives in Brisbane and holds a Bachelor of Health Science majoring in acupuncture. Chris completed his degree in 2015 at Endeavour College of Natural Health where he graduated with distinction and was awarded the medal of academic excellence for highest achievement Australia-wide for acupuncture. He currently holds positions at Endeavour College as a contract tutor for higher education and alumni representative for the Course Advisory Committees for both the Acupuncture and Biosciences departments, as well as having been chosen as the focus for their 2017 - 18 Graduate Stories write up.

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