Western Medical Acupuncture: What Is It? Is It Safe?

by Luke Harris on November 16, 2015

People are often confused when they hear the term dry needling or medical acupuncture. They often have no idea what it is, or confuse it with its Chinese Traditional counterpart. The Osteopaths at Kings Cross Osteopathy use it on a daily basis, so here is a little introduction for those that are unfamiliar with it.

Don’t worry, it won’t hurt a bit!

Dry needling or western medical acupuncture (WMA), has nothing to do with Chi flow, meridians or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It uses certain mechanisms of the body to create a healing effect. For example one use of WMA is to reduce muscle tone. Similar to ‘trigger point’ massage a tight knot can be located in a muscle and needled. This will often cause a twitch response, where the muscle twitches and then relaxes. The needle disrupts the tight muscle bundles without the discomfort of having to press on or massage the sore spot. Particularly useful for very acute back or neck pain.

WMA is also used for pain relief. This has a neurological and physiological effect. Firstly, for chronic pain, the stimulation created by a needle can access different pain pathways that can confuse redundant pathways that are maintained by an old injury. A bit like rubbing or putting pressure on your elbow when you bang it into something, the stimulation can override pain signals. Also, deliberately creating fresh inflammation can be useful when needling to relieve tendinitis injuries and promote the healing process by creating new blood flow.

Wait! This all sounds painful!

Actually it really isn’t. For example, under a microscope a hypodermic needle used for injections looks like a straw that you pierce a drink carton with. It needs to slice the skin and have a wide bore to deliver fluids. An acupuncture needle would look more like a pin. They are so fine you could put 3 or four into the barrel of a hypodermic needle. Because they don’t slice as much as move the cells around them as they go in, you hardly feel them at all.

Hmm. But is it safe? Yes, very. White et al. calculate the risk of a serious adverse event risk following acupuncture treatment at 1:500000 treatments. (White, A., M. Cummings, et al. (2008). Safe needling. An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture. London, Elsevier: 153-161.)

To put that into context, deaths associated with long term use of simple over the counter anti-inflammatory medication has been estimated at 1:1000. Risk of road traffic accident is 1:20000 each year. (Plunkett, A. (2015). Communicating Risk. The Osteopath. London, General Osteopathic Council. 18:18.)

Are you scared? You shouldn’t be. It’s a painless and simple procedure.

For the truly needle phobic. You are under no obligation to have any needling during your treatment at Kings Cross Osteopathy, and it is never absolutely indicated for any particular condition. Not only is it completely your decision to have it or not, your injury presentation or individual circumstances may not be suitable for dry needling anyway. Your Osteopath will be happy to discuss with you all the treatment options, and advise on suitability.

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