IMS/Dry Needling and acupuncture: What’s the difference?

IMS/Dry Needling and acupuncture: What’s the difference?

Two questions that I am often asked by my patients are “ What is the difference between IMS (intramuscular stimulation) and traditional acupuncture?” and “How does IMS work?”

The Difference
IMS is a technique that was developed by a physician named Dr. Chan Gunn. It is a system that was derived from a body of research investigating what happens to our tissues when nerves become altered. It is based on Western medicine’s understanding of the neurophysiology of pain, human anatomy and biomechanics. An acupuncture needle is inserted into a shortened band of hypersensitive muscle where a reflex response is elicited. This response is variable and can be a sensation of a deep ache, electrical in nature and often the sensation can be felt in an area far away from the needle insertion. A muscle twitch or “jump” is elicited which can be small or large in nature depending on the degree of muscle sensitivity and shortening. The tighter and more sensitive the muscle band the bigger the jump and hence the stronger the sensation experienced by the patient. The needle is left in for as long as it takes to create a relaxation effect in the muscle, meaning a relief of the cramping sensation as well as the needle no longer being able to elicit a muscle twitch. This can be as long as a couple of seconds or can take minutes.
Traditional acupuncture is based on an ancient Chinese philosophy that illness and pain occur when the body’s qi, or vital energy, cannot flow freely. This system focuses on points that have been mapped out in the body that relate to different organs and meridians of energy. They have a very specific location based on surface anatomy. Acupuncture needles are inserted into these points and usually left to rest for 20-30 minutes. By inserting needles into specific acupuncture points, a traditional acupuncturist seeks to reestablish the free flow of qi to restore balance and trigger the body’s natural healing response. Conditions typically treated by Traditional Chinese Acupuncture would frequently be for be stress related issues : insomnia, digestive dysfunctions, hormonal imbalances by a practitioner certified in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Western Acupuncture: Registered Physiotherapists and physicians can be trained in a branch of acupuncture which is used typically to treat a local problem : an acute joint sprain , arthtitis or as a calming intervention after another treatment.

So How Does IMS work?
When a needle is inserted into a shortened muscle band the muscle will contract strongly and stretch the tendons at either end. This in turn stimulates the stretch receptors located within the tendon, which are there to sense when a muscle stretches or contracts too strongly. When they get triggered they reflexively send a signal to your spinal cord, which in turn commands the muscle to relax. It is a neurophysiological “rebooting” of the muscle. IMS takes advantage of your body’s protective feedback loops to create a dampening in tone and sensitivity of a muscle. By restoring muscle length you will improve joint range of motion and overall muscle function. By decreasing the sensitivity of a muscle you will decrease pain.
Another benefit of IMS is that when a needle is inserted into tissue the body recognizes this as a miniature wound. This in turn stimulates the body to increase local circulation and activate its healing systems. In particular the release of platelet derived growth factor, which is a protein that stimulates collagen synthesis. Simply put it is like “pruning a plant.” Small injuries are created to stimulate new growth to replace injured tissues and promote healing.

IMS/Dry Needling and acupuncture: What’s the difference?

As a physiotherapist who has been using IMS for 17 years I can attest to the healing power of this treatment. In conjunction with manual therapy, corrective exercises and functional movement re patterning the ability to restore a person to their full potential can be realized.
The above information is referencing the work of Dr. Chan Gunn.
You can find more information about the use of IMS via the ISTOP website,

Suzanne Rodzoniak B.SC Physiotherapy.
FCAMPT, Certified IMS practitioner

* The terms IMS and Dry Needling are frequently interchanged. They both refer to the same technique with the same benefits. Gunn IMS refers specifically to the research based work of Dr Gunn. Registered Physiotherapists may be trained by him or by other certified teachers of dry needling recognized by BC College of Physical Therapists.