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Needling Techniques in Physical Therapy: IMS, Acupuncture, and Dry Needling Explained

Updated: Feb 16

In the realm of physical therapy, there are various needling techniques that may be used to address musculoskeletal issues and alleviate pain. Three of the most commonly confused methods are Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS), Acupuncture, and Dry Needling. While they all involve the use of fine needles, these techniques differ significantly in their principles, application, and intended outcomes. In this blog, we will explore the key distinctions between IMS, Acupuncture, and Dry Needling to help you better understand which approach might be suitable for your specific needs.

IMS (Intramuscular Stimulation)

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IMS, or Intramuscular Stimulation, is a treatment method developed by Dr. Chan Gunn, a Canadian physician. It is primarily used by physical therapists to address chronic pain and musculoskeletal conditions. IMS targets myofascial trigger points, which are knots of muscle fibers that can lead to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility.

Key Features of IMS:

  • IMS is based on Western medical principles and neurophysiology.

  • Thin needles are inserted directly into trigger points within muscles to stimulate them.

  • The goal of IMS is to release muscle tension, improve blood flow, and reduce pain.

  • It is a precise and evidence-based technique, often requiring a thorough physical assessment by a trained practitioner.


Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that has been used for thousands of years. It is rooted in the concept of balancing the body's vital energy or "Qi" by stimulating specific points along the body's meridians with fine needles. While acupuncture is not a primary technique in physical therapy, some physical therapists may incorporate it into their treatment plans for pain management.

Key Features of Acupuncture:

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  • Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine and the concept of balancing energy pathways.

  • Fine needles are inserted at specific acupuncture points along meridians.

  • The goal of acupuncture is to promote energy flow, reduce pain, and improve overall health.

  • Acupuncture is holistic in nature, addressing a wide range of health concerns beyond musculoskeletal issues.

Dry Needling

Dry needling is a relatively modern technique used by physical therapists and healthcare professionals to address musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction. It is grounded in Western medicine and anatomy. Dry needling targets trigger points and muscle knots, similar to IMS, but the terminology and some techniques may vary.

Key Features of Dry Needling:

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  • Dry needling is based on Western medical principles, with a focus on muscular dysfunction and pain relief.

  • Thin needles are inserted into trigger points within muscles.

  • The goal of dry needling is to release muscle tension, improve blood flow, and alleviate pain.

  • Dry needling can be integrated into a physical therapy treatment plan and is often used for localized pain management.

While IMS, Acupuncture, and Dry Needling all involve the use of fine needles and aim to reduce pain, their underlying principles, applications, and goals differ significantly. IMS and Dry Needling are primarily used by physical therapists to address musculoskeletal issues and are firmly rooted in Western medical principles. Acupuncture, on the other hand, is based on traditional Chinese medicine and focuses on balancing energy flow for overall health.

If you're considering one of these needling techniques as part of your physical therapy treatment, it's crucial to consult with a qualified practitioner who can recommend the most appropriate approach based on your specific needs and goals. Each technique has its merits and can be valuable tools in the hands of trained professionals for addressing pain and promoting overall well-being.


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