Dry Needling vs Acupuncture: The Major Difference and Benefits

Interested in comparing dry needling vs acupuncture? The main difference between the two is that acupuncture uses needles to stimulate nerves in the muscles to produce endorphins, which may relieve some symptoms. Dry needling on the other hand places needles into pressure points to relieve muscle pain and cramping. In the United States, acupuncture is considered a complementary therapy while dry needling is not.

There are many alternative treatment options for pain and some a worth more consideration than others. Traditional Chinese Medicine has many treatments that can be effective when combined with other therapies but are typically not considered the primary treatment in modern medicine. The most common example is acupuncture.

Acupuncture has been used in China for thousands of years and is still widely practiced today for many conditions but more recently dry needling has emerged as a technique that is gaining popularity in the US. While this treatment also uses needles it is important to note that the history and theory behind acupuncture and dry needling are very different.

Acupuncture is one of the oldest known treatments for pain relief. The technique was developed in China around 2000 years ago, and it has since spread to thousands of countries across the world. Dry needling is a more modern development that was first introduced in the 1960s by a Japanese chiropractor, Dr. Shima Ohashi.

Physical therapists have enjoyed much success with dry needling because it is simple to learn and can be applied quickly in cases of acute injury. While acupuncture focuses on the stimulation of nerves in the muscles, dry needling targets specific trigger points that are associated with pain in a specific area or muscle group. Related: Dry Needling: A Comprehensive View On This Treatment

The best treatment option for you will greatly depend on your pain.

Dry Needling Vs Acupuncture

Acupuncture is best for those struggling with:

  • chronic pain
  • neuromusculoskeletal pain
  • blocked energy
  • digestive problems
  • nausea
  • menstrual cramping
  • headaches and migraines
  • depression
  • labor-related pain
  • vomiting

Dry needling is best for those struggling with:

  • muscle pain
  • sports injuries
  • muscle tension
  • lower back pain
  • neck pain
  • plantar fasciitis
  • limited range of motion

The benefits of dry needling over acupuncture include:

  • Dry needling is less invasive than acupuncture.
  • Acupuncture needles must be sterilized after every use, whereas dry needling needles are disposable.
  • Dry needling can be used on both sides of the body simultaneously or independently, while acupuncture is generally applied to just one side at a time.
  • Dry needling is typically more cost-effective than acupuncture.
  • Acupuncture is contraindicated during pregnancy and in patients with pacemakers or other metallic implants in the body.
  • Dry needling may be more useful for people with conditions such as diabetes, where using acupuncture needles might cause complications.

Both treatments can be used to treat the same conditions effectively. This is why it is important to consider your options carefully and discuss them with your doctor or physical therapist. Related: The Pros and Cons of Dry Needling

Dry Needling vs Acupuncture

The difference in background


Traditional acupuncture was created in China and has been used for thousands of years to treat a wide range of conditions. The practice of acupuncture is rooted in vitalism. According to the theory, energy flows naturally through the body via channels called “meridians”. The main purpose of acupuncture is to restore the flow of energy along these meridians, with each acupuncture point corresponding to a specific organ or body function.

Dry Needling

Dry needling on the other hand is a more modern treatment, first developed in the 1960s by Japanese chiropractor Shima Ohashi. Oriental medicine has its roots in philosophy and is based on vitalism, while modern manual therapy (including dry needling) is essentially allopathic.

The difference in theory


Traditional acupuncture is based on the theory of chi (pronounced “chee”). It is believed that life force energy flows through the body via channels called meridians. Each of these meridians corresponds to a specific organ or function of the body, and one can help another by opening them up. This treatment focuses on unblocking energy in order to restore the natural balance of the body.

Dry Needling

Dry needling is based on the gate control theory, which states that when you stimulate certain nerves in your muscles, they will send signals downstream to block pain in that area. For this reason, dry needling is far more targeted than acupuncture and can be used as a treatment on its own to relieve pain in a specific area. It also helps with muscle spasms and can help stimulate the natural healing process of injured tissues.

The difference in uses


Acupuncture involves using acupuncture needles to target certain areas of the body. Dry needling follows a similar process but only involves the use of sterile and disposable needles, and they use different placement than those used in acupuncture. The thin needles are placed into muscle groups that are painful or tender, which helps to release trigger points in muscles.

With the local twitch response, the muscle will contract briefly upon insertion. This forms a micro-trauma in the muscle, which stimulates blood flow to the area and induces the release of neurotransmitters, prostaglandins, and endorphins. These can help to improve mobility, reduce inflammation, and control pain.

Dry Needling

Dry needling is performed at any area of the body but it is most frequently used for treating musculoskeletal conditions. Dry needling can apply pressure to a trigger point and release tension in the muscles, which may help to reduce pain and muscle spasms. It can also relax a muscle by targeting motor points.

Dry needling has been found to affect the fascia, which is the connective tissue responsible for holding our muscles together. Fascia covers all of your muscles and can be injured or develop knots (trigger points), which cause pain in that area. This type of connective tissue can also refer pain to other areas throughout the body, so if you have a knot in your shoulder, for example, it can cause pain in the neck and head as well.

Dry needling helps to break up these triggers points, which can help ease discomfort and pain all over the body. This is why dry needling is so popular among physical therapists who use it regularly for sports injuries and other conditions.

The difference in practice


Acupuncture treatments involve placing acupuncture needles at specific points on your body. This is done by a licensed acupuncturist who will decide the best location based on your health and injury history, as well as your own experience and training. Extensive training is needed to be able to recognize the feeling of the needle entering the skin (called de qi), which you can expect to feel like a deep muscle ache.

With repeated treatments, you will likely develop more body awareness and be able to sense this feeling earlier on in your treatments. Once you are aware that it has entered into your muscles, you may feel a release in particular acupuncture points or it may become less tender.

This type of treatment does not directly impact your injury or condition. Rather, it works on your body’s energy flow to promote healing and restore balance. The use of acupuncture is ideal for those who want to reduce their reliance on medications and for those with chronic conditions.

Dry Needling

Dry needling is performed by physical therapists, chiropractors, doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs), and sometimes even athletic trainers. Dry needling is based on the theory of neuromuscular therapy, which is also known as trigger point dry needling. It involves inserting a dry needle directly into the muscles, allowing for direct treatment of pain in that area.

Dry needling similarly involves using a thin needle tip to place pressure on trigger points in muscles. The practitioner uses an image of the body, along with palpation, to identify areas where they should place pressure. Once placed, the needles can be manipulated or left in place for a set amount of time. Dry needling techniques vary from provider to provider, though it is performed similarly by all.

Myofascial trigger points are often found in muscles that are close to the skin’s surface, so they are easy to target with dry needling. Pain is felt at the location where you would normally find a trigger point when it becomes active, but dry needling can help to activate these trigger points and relieve muscular pain in certain areas of the body. Physical therapists use this method to treat patients for a variety of conditions, including back pain, tight muscles, and sports injuries.

Strategic points are needled with the goal of helping to regulate your flow of chi. Expert acupuncturists know the location of all of these points and understand how to place needles in order to get the best results for your health. Dry needling has been shown to be effective in treating conditions such as back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, improving muscle function, and more!

The difference in costs: Dry Needling Vs Acupuncture


Acupuncture can be performed by an acupuncturist, who is a licensed health care professional that has received extensive training. This type of treatment involves placing needles at specific points around your body and it can be expensive. Treatments are usually given weekly or every other week, and you will likely need to do at least 8-12 treatments before you start to see results.

Dry Needling

Dry needling can be performed by physical therapists, chiropractors, DOs, or sports injury therapists. This type of treatment is fairly inexpensive compared with acupuncture (since it can easily fit into your existing treatment plan). Typically there are no side effects with dry needling, but you may be sore after treatment (like any other workout). Dry needling treatments are usually not covered by insurance companies.

Dry Needling Vs Acupuncture: While it is not expected that dry needling will replace acupuncture for pain management, some people have found some relief from their symptoms by incorporating this newer practice into their current plans. If you are considering adding dry needling to your plan, talk with your doctor or physical therapist about the best options for you.