What Is The Difference Between Dry Needling and Acupuncture?

dry needling vs acupuncture

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, pain and muscle tension have become all too common. Whether it’s from hours spent in front of a computer, or physical labor at job sites or restaurants, our bodies often bear the brunt of our busy lifestyles. As a result, remedies such as massages that offer immediate relief from these aches have become increasingly popular.

Two such treatments that are gaining traction are Dry Needling and Acupuncture. These therapies, while seemingly similar, are distinctly different in their approach and benefits. In this article, we will delve into the world of these two intriguing treatments, exploring their origins, procedures, benefits, and how they compare to each other.

Dry Needling vs Acupuncture: Are They The Same?

Dry needling and acupuncture are therapeutic practices that involve the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body. Despite this similarity, they stem from different medical philosophies and address different health issues.

Dry needling is a newer technique based on Western medicine principles. It aims to relieve pain and restore normal muscle function by targeting trigger points, or “knots,” in the muscles.

Acupuncture, on the other hand, is a centuries-old practice rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. It entails inserting needles along the body’s meridian lines in order to restore balance and promote the body’s natural healing process. 

Comparing Dry Needling vs Acupuncture

Dry needling and acupuncture, despite their apparent similarities, are separate practices with distinct origins, methodologies, and purposes. A comprehensive comparison of these two techniques reveals both overlapping and divergent characteristics.


Dry needling is largely based on anatomical and neurophysiological principles from the Western world. It primarily targets myofascial trigger points, which are tight knots within muscles that cause widespread pain. Dry needling can relieve pain and restore normal muscle function by inserting needles into these trigger points.

Acupuncture, on the other hand, has its roots in traditional Chinese medicine and is based on the idea of Qi, or energy flow. To balance the body’s energy, encourage healing, and relieve pain, acupuncturists insert needles into particular points along the body’s meridians.

Treatment Duration and Target Points

Treatment duration and target points also vary between dry needling and acupuncture. Dry needling typically uses fewer needles and is performed for a shorter amount of time. The needle insertion points are based on physical symptoms and tend to be located directly at the site of pain.

On the other hand, multiple needles may be used during acupuncture, and they are frequently left in place for longer periods of time. An acupuncturist may insert needles at locations that are distant from the symptomatic areas, as it is believed that the entire body is interconnected through meridians.

Efficacy and Applications

Both dry needling and acupuncture have proven effective in managing different types of pain. However, their applications can differ. For instance, a randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled crossover trial showed that acupuncture at distant points had significantly superior effects for chronic neck pain than local dry needling.

Conversely, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that dry needling could have a treatment effect on myofascial trigger point pain.

Beyond Muscle Pain and Tension

While dry needling and acupuncture are widely known for their effectiveness in alleviating muscle pain and tension, their benefits extend beyond these areas. Both treatments have been shown to address a range of health issues, contributing to overall well-being.

Dry needling has been found to be particularly effective in treating conditions related to musculoskeletal disorders, such as neck pain. In addition, a systematic review found that dry needling might help people with fibromyalgia, a condition that is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain along with fatigue, sleep problems, memory problems, and mood problems.

With its origins in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is renowned for its versatility in the treatment of a wide range of illnesses. Besides managing chronic pain, acupuncture has been used to aid fertility and alleviate symptoms of conditions like anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraines, and even some digestive disorders.

Research also suggests that both acupuncture and dry needling may be beneficial in the treatment of low back pain. This aligns with the holistic approach of these therapies, targeting not just the symptoms but the underlying causes of discomfort.

However, it’s important to note that while promising, more research is needed to fully understand the extent of the benefits provided by dry needling and acupuncture for ailments beyond muscle pain and tension. Before beginning any new treatment, always seek medical advice.

Are There Any Risks in Dry Needling and Acupuncture Procedures?

While dry needling and acupuncture are generally considered safe when performed by trained professionals, they do carry some risks and potential side effects. It’s important to be aware of these before deciding to proceed with either treatment.

Dry Needling Risks and Side Effects

1. Soreness and Discomfort

The most common side effect of dry needling is soreness during and after the treatment. This is typically temporary and may last for a few hours to a couple of days.

2. Bruising or Bleeding

There is a chance of bruising or minor bleeding because dry needling involves inserting a needle into muscle trigger points.

3. Fatigue and Tiredness

Some patients may experience fatigue and tiredness after the procedure.

4. Iatrogenic Injury

Iatrogenic injury to vessels, nerves, spinal cord, internal organs, or implanted devices is possible, though uncommon.

5. Infection

When non-sterile needles are used, there is a risk of infection, including bloodborne illnesses.

Acupuncture Risks and Side Effects

1. Mild Bleeding and Bruising

Similar to dry needling, acupuncture can cause mild bleeding and bruising at the needle sites.

2. Temporary Soreness

Patients may experience temporary soreness (for about 24-48 hours) following the treatment.

3. Infection

As with dry needling, if non-sterile needles are used, there’s a risk of infection.

4. Illegal and Unsafe Practice

Concerns have been raised about the illegal and dangerous practice of acupuncture known as “trigger-point dry needling.” It is critical to ensure that the practitioner is properly licensed and trained.

Which is Better: Dry Needling or Acupuncture?

Deciding between dry needling and acupuncture depends largely on individual needs and preferences. While dry needling may be more focused on alleviating musculoskeletal discomfort and assisting with physical therapy, acupuncture provides a more holistic approach, addressing a wide range of ailments beyond just physical discomfort.

It is crucial to consult with a healthcare provider before deciding on a treatment, as they can provide advice tailored to your specific health condition and needs. Both treatments have proven beneficial in their own ways, and the “better” choice may simply be the one that aligns best with your personal health goals.

As we continue to explore the world of holistic health, stay tuned for more insights into promising treatments like dry needling and acupuncture. They are not only tools for pain relief but also powerful practices that can contribute to overall well-being.

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