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Dry Needling, Acupuncture, Wet Needling - What's the difference?

What is Dry needling?

If you have visited one of our osteopathy clinics at Retrain Health you might have been offered a dry needling treatment from one of our practitioners. Dry needling is one of the many techniques that we use to treat pain and assist with recovery. Dry needling can sometimes be mixed up with acupuncture and wet needling. This blog will help to clear any confusion and give you some more information. So let us start by comparing the difference between acupuncture, wet needling and dry needling.

What is Acupuncture?

Practitioners of Chinese medicine use acupuncture to create balance and restore energy flow (chi). Acupuncture is believed to have originated around 100 BC, and it has been used to treat internal ailments, including digestive problems, insomnia, stress, and chronic pain. During an acupuncture session the needles are injected and left in place for about 15-30 minutes. The needles are inserted into points along meridian lines, which represents the bodily organs. What is wet needling?

A doctor or a nurse inject corticosteroids, anaesthetics, sclerosants or botulinum toxins through the needle into muscles, ligaments, fascia, and scar tissue to reduce pain and restore function. It is a technique rooted in medical science, and it can be utilized to treat numerous musculoskeletal problems.

Dry needling & how it works:

Osteopaths use dry needling to release trigger points (knots) in muscle tissue. The technique is backed up by modern science, and is considered safe, effective, and consistent with the general scope of practice for physical therapists. Dry needling typically takes 5-15 minutes, and it is almost always used as a part of an overall plan (likely to include manual therapy, heat, exercise, and education).

The exact mechanisms of dry needling are complex and not fully known, but there is a growing body of scientific studies which indicate that:

  • The needles cause micro damage to the muscle fibres which initiates a localised inflammatory response, increasing blood flow to the region, promoting the body’s natural healing response and muscle relaxation.

  • The needles cause a local twitch response (muscle contraction) within a trigger point which then releases the body’s own pain-relieving chemicals.

  • By inserting a needle into a muscle, the brains ‘pain gate’ is closed, which may result in pain relief to that specific area.

In summary, dry needling can assist with relaxing muscle spasms and myofascial trigger points, pain relief, and reducing inflammation.

When do we use dry needling?

Dry needling can be used to increase range of motion in tight and hypertonic muscle. Other reasons for this technique may include:

  • Joint problems, for example arthritis and bursitis

  • Back and hip pain, for example disc degeneration and sciatica

  • Tendinitis

  • Scar tissue

  • Headache

  • Jaw and mouth problems, for example tooth ache, sinus problems, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction

  • Whiplash

  • Repetitive motion disorders

  • Night cramps

Side effects:

  • Soreness during or after the needles are taken out

  • Minimal bleeding where the needles were inserted

  • Bruising of the skin

  • Fainting

  • Fatigue

Is dry needling right for you?

Most people can have dry needling, but please check with your doctor first if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Pregnancy (some practitioners choose to avoid dry needling during pregnancy altogether, while other practitioners avoid it in the first trimester.)

  • A bleeding disorder

  • A vascular disease

  • Lymphedema

  • Blood thinning medication

  • Compromised immune system

  • Diabetes

  • Epilepsy

We will not perform dry needling on someone that has any of the following conditions:
  • Anyone with open wounds

  • Anyone with an ongoing infection or impaired ability to heal

  • Individuals with bleeding disorders

  • People who have a fear of needles and do not consent to the technique

A little history on dry needling: Clinical findings which suggest that dry needling of tender points could produce profound relief of musculoskeletal pain was initially published in 1941. Dr Janet Travell introduced the term “dry needling” while using a hypodermic needle without injecting any substances. In 1979, Dr Lewit reported pain relief by stimulating trigger points with both hypodermic and acupuncture needles. In 1989, Dr Gunn and Dr Baldry moved on from the hypodermic needle and adopted the acupuncture needle that is used today. Since 2000, there has been a surge in academic interest in dry needling and its use has expanded into the allied health professions.

Image: Dr Dr Janet Travell, 1968


Retrain Health is based in the Northern Rivers, NSW. From our Byron Bay and Ballina clinics, our team provides a range of quality healthcare services and products. Retrain Health offers osteopathy, remedial massage, strength and conditioning, and PT sessions, with qualified practitioners. If you are interested in finding out more information or would like to book an appointment, please contact the clinic by phone (02) 6680 7447, send us an email or click here to book an appointment online.

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