What’s the difference between acupuncture and dry needling (IMS)?



About 20 years ago I read an article about a medical doctor in Vancouver BC who was performing a technique he developed called Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS).

I was so intrigued by this form of therapy, that I took him out for lunch to learn more.

The results of our meeting lead me to pursue additional education and training, so that I could incorporate this extremely effective technique into my practice.

The therapeutic results continue to astound me on a daily basis.

What is IMS?

Intrasmuscular Stimulation (IMS/Dry Needling) is a system for the evaluation and management of myofascial pain syndromes (trigger points).

It is grounded in Western Medical Science, in that the theory, assessment and application are all based on neuro-anatomical concepts.

Like acupuncture, the treatment, utilizes acupuncture needles due to their ability to penetrate muscle and fascia, specifically targeting injured areas that have become contracted or shortened from injury.

Unlike traditional acupuncture, IMS relies on a thorough physical examination of the patient by a practitioner trained in orthopedic, neurologic and functional movement assessment.

This physical examination is indispensable, since chronic pain is often the result of faulty movement patterns, accompanied in some instances by dysfunction in the nervous system (neuropathy and radiculopathy).

Without an accurate assessment, a practitioner can end up treating compensatory or symptomatic areas instead of the actual source or cause of dysfunction.

The treatment involves dry needling of affected areas of the body without injecting any substance.  The needle sites can be at the epicenter of taut, tender muscle bands, or they can be near the spine where the nerve root may have become irritated and supersensitive.

Penetration of a normal muscle is painless; however, a shortened, supersensitive muscle will ‘grasp’ the needle in what can be described as the latent twitch response. This twitch response is a positive sign that this procedure will be effective.

Dry needling leads to:

  1. A stretch receptor in the muscle being stimulated, producing a reflex relaxation (lengthening);
  2. A small injury that draws blood to the area, initiating the natural healing process; and
  3. An electrical potential in the muscle to make the nerve function normally again.

The goal of treatment is to release muscle shortening, which can irritate nerves as well as cause inflammation in muscles, tendons and joints.

IMS results in desensitization of supersensitive areas, lengthening of shortened muscles and increased range of motion around joints.

IMS is very effective for releasing shortened muscles which can commonly cause conditions such as: tendonitis, bursitis, epicondylitis and fasciitis.

In addition, by addressing the nerves at the spinal level, IMS treats the underlying neuropathic condition that causes the pain.  This has been shown to be helpful for chronic back pain with nerve root involvement (e.g. a disc problem)

While IMS is in some ways comparable to acupuncture, there are a number of important differences:

1. IMS requires a medical examination and diagnosis by a practitioner knowledgeable in anatomy, neurology and orthopedics;

2. Needles insertion is indicated by physical signs and not according to predefined meridians; and

3. Subjective and objective effects are usually experienced right after the treatment.


Stay tuned for videos of this remarkable technique…

About the Author

Dr. Geoff LecovinNaturopathic Physician/Chiropractor/Acupuncturist/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist/Performance Enhancement Specialist/Certified Sports Nutritionist/View all posts by Dr. Geoff Lecovin