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Understanding the Difference Between Local and Distal Acupuncture

Sep 9, 2022

Understanding the Difference Between Local and Distal Acupuncture

Acupuncture needles are inserted in someone's right hand in an example of local and distal acupuncture.

“There’s a saying in Chinese Medicine,” says Kristy Hanley, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., owner of Resilient Health Acupuncture. “‘Where there is pain, there is no free flow. Where there is free flow, there is no pain.’”

Hanley says to picture a quiet forest stream. A tree falls across the stream, creating a barrier. Gradually, the tree begins to trap all of the trash and litter that floats by. Before long, the stream is blocked with garbage.

“That’s stagnation,” Hanley says. “That same thing happens in our bodies. An acupuncturist’s job is to go in and remove that stagnation so that you can have a free flow. And when circulation improves, we all know that we’re healthier.”

Eliminating Stagnation with Local and Distal Acupuncture

Local and distal acupuncture are both commonly used to ward off stagnation and its damaging effects wherever and whenever they arise. However, both treatments use different points along the body to achieve this goal.

For example, says Hanley, a patient seeking relief for back pain may be a prime candidate for local acupuncture based on his or her health history and level of pain – whether chronic or acute. With local treatment, needles are placed directly into the afflicted – or painful – area of the body. This prompts an immediate immune response that rallies healing white blood cells and stimulates circulation and energy flow.

“Sometimes it’s better to do local treatment,” says Hanley. “If your pain is, say, by the knee, there are many acupuncture points around there that we can target. We also do something called Ashi needling. Here, there are no acupuncture points, but we needle directly into the area where the pain exists.”

Ashi needling – also referred to as dry needling by some professionals – has been in use for thousands of years to reduce inflammation and trigger a robust immune response. Many acupuncturists – including RHA’s providers – use it frequently, in fact. But according to Hanley, it is even more effective when combined with other points in the body to achieve better balance.

‘Where Will You Put the Needles?’

All acupuncture channels begin and end in the feet and hands, says Hanley. “Those are some of the strongest points in the body.”

That’s why acupuncturists at RHA leverage points in the hands when treating back pain or points in the foot to relieve migraines and headaches.

“I’ve found that it can be more effective to treat somebody with acute severe back pain using points farther away from the back – those distal points,” she continues. “You may come in with acute back pain at a high level if you just injured yourself, but I might not put any needles in the area where that pain is. Instead, what we need to do is break that pain cycle so that it doesn’t continue to cause the area to become inflamed. So, I may use points in your ears, I may use points in your hands, and I may use channels in your upper arms that will help to release all of that inflammation in your back from that injury.”

Once the pain is brought under control using distal acupuncture – and is not worsening – acupuncturists can move on to local needling, says Hanley. “And that could be acupuncture points specifically in the area, or it could be those places where you have pain, which is the Ashi needling. We know if we needle directly into that area it will result in a cascade of healing.”

Another great example of distal needling? Needing to have a baby – quick.

“Sometimes women come to us when they want to go into labor,” says Hanley. “They’re 40 weeks and have gotten the go-ahead from their obstetrician that it’s time to start stimulating labor. In this case, we actually use a point on the little toe, which helps to bring all that energy down and get things moving in the uterus so that labor picks up much faster.”

The Patient Points the Way

Ultimately, a patient’s unique health needs will dictate whether local or distal acupuncture is used during an appointment. Some patients may find that treating local points on the head is more effective for their migraines, and acupuncturists are happy to oblige. Ridding patients of stagnation is the goal, after all, and every person’s energy flow responds differently. Questions? The team at Resilient Health Acupuncture is ready to help. Call us at 443-353-5990 or schedule your appointment today.