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Intramuscular stimulation (IMS or Dry Needling) and acupuncture stand out as prominent therapies for pain and musculoskeletal conditions in alternative medicine. Both involve the insertion of needles, yet they stem from entirely different philosophies and target conditions. Whether you’re a health enthusiast or someone exploring alternative treatments, understanding the nuances between IMS and acupuncture can guide your wellness choices more effectively.

Comparison of Treatment Techniques

IMS and acupuncture might appear similar at first—both use needles, after all—but the similarities end there. IMS is a treatment grounded in Western medical science, focusing on diagnosing and alleviating neuropathic muscle pain. It involves inserting needles into tight muscle bands or trigger points causing pain. There’s no traditional philosophy guiding the process; instead, it’s all about the physical release of muscle tension and its neurophysiological effects.

Conversely, acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice based on the flow of Qi (energy) through meridians in the body. Practitioners insert needles at specific points along these pathways to restore balance and promote health. This method is less about targeting particular muscle knots and more about realigning the body’s energy systems.

Conditions Targeted by IMS and Acupuncture

The conditions treated by IMS and acupuncture often overlap but generally have different focuses. IMS primarily addresses chronic pain, especially when the cause is neuropathic or related to muscle knots and tension. It’s particularly effective for conditions like back pain, tennis elbow, and fibromyalgia.

Acupuncture, with its broader philosophical approach, tackles a wide array of ailments beyond just musculoskeletal issues. It is an effective treatment for everything from headaches and menstrual cramps to stress, anxiety, and even infertility. The evidence base for both treatments varies, with acupuncture having substantial research backing its effectiveness across various conditions.

man getting IMS on his trapezoid

Needle Type and Technique

IMS uses needles that are very similar to acupuncture but may be slightly thicker (.3mm vs .25mm) and can be inserted deeper into the muscle tissue. IMS targets trigger points or “knots” within muscles. You should feel a deep ache or a twitching sensation as the practitioner moves the needle up and down through the tightened band of muscle. This technique elicits a twitch response from the muscle, releasing tension.

Acupuncture needles, on the other hand, are slightly thinner and shorter, designed for minimal discomfort. Acupuncture aims to balance energy flow (qi) by inserting needles at precise points along the body’s meridians, offering a gentle therapeutic experience. The needles typically remain in place for the whole session. Gentle manipulations may accompany them to enhance the treatment’s energy-balancing effects.

Patient Experience of Pain or Discomfort Between IMS and Acupuncture

The experience of receiving IMS can be more intense due to the focus on eliciting muscle twitches. This might result in brief, acute discomfort when the needle hits a trigger point, often followed by immediate relief as the muscle relaxes.

Acupuncture aims for a relatively painless insertion, with patients sometimes not feeling the needle. Patients generally describe the experience as deeply relaxing, with occasional mild sensations of tingling or heaviness around the needle sites.

Graduation scrolls

Practitioner Profiles

Practitioners of IMS are usually trained physiotherapists with specific certifications in this technique. They have a solid anatomy, physiology, and pathology background, applying this knowledge to identify and treat specific musculoskeletal issues through IMS.

Acupuncturists undergo extensive training in traditional Chinese medicine, including the theory of Qi, meridians, and the holistic view of the body. In British Columbia, acupuncturists need licensure to meet professional standards for safe, effective treatment.

Similarities Between Acupuncture and IMS

Despite their differences, both therapies share common ground in their holistic approach to health, focusing on treating the body as a whole rather than isolated symptoms.

  • Pain Management: Both are effective in managing various types of pain, from musculoskeletal issues to chronic headaches and stress-induced discomfort.
  • Holistic Approach: They view health and wellness comprehensively through the lens of energy flow and balance in acupuncture or muscle function and nerve health in IMS.
  • Individualized Treatment: Treatments are highly tailored, with practitioners adjusting their approach based on each patient’s unique condition and needs.


While IMS and acupuncture both offer benefits for various conditions, the choice between them comes down to individual needs and treatment goals. IMS often suits those with specific, localized muscle pain seeking relief with a foundation in Western medical principles. Acupuncture might appeal more to those looking for a holistic approach to wellness, encompassing physical, mental, and emotional health.

Before deciding, consult with professionals in both fields to discuss your concerns and treatment expectations. With knowledge and professional advice, you’ll be better placed to choose the therapy that best aligns with your wellness path.

Written by: DeVera Nybo, MBA, Owner Newleaf Total Wellness Centre

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