Understanding the Difference Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling

Acupuncture is a very old and traditional practice dating back to 5,000 years ago. It originated in China and is part of traditional Chinese medicine. On the other hand, dry needling is a much more modern treatment, developed only in the 20th century.

The two treatments have their similarities, first and foremost is that they both use needles for pain treatment. However, beyond this, these two practices are extremely different from each other. Which leads to the question, what is the difference between acupuncture and dry needling?


The philosophy behind acupuncture is that the body has 12 meridian pathways through which chi flows all around the body. These pathways are linked to internal organs and any blockage can manifest in pain in these body parts. In order to relieve this pain or tension, fine needles are used at specific points along the meridians. These needles are used to stimulate these points for up to half an hour.

Upon doing so, the flow of chi is restored and symptoms are addressed even without needling the exact problematic area. Not only can it treat stress or pain, it may even be effective in alleviating medical conditions and mental illnesses. This may include issues with high blood pressure, problems with the digestive system, anxiety, fertility and much more.

The advantage of acupuncture is that it is an overall approach to pain in the body. After all, they believe that the body is not just a combination of body parts that are independent of each other but instead is interconnected as a whole. The target is to treat the root cause, which means the effects last longer and the patient will feel much stronger. The procedure itself is not painful and is quite relaxing.

Dry Needling 

Dry needling is based on Western medicine philosophy and is called so because the needles do not have any medicine like cortisone or even a saline solution. It is commonly practiced by physiotherapists to handle musculoskeletal issues like back or neck pain, pain in shoulders and arms, migraines or headaches, sciatica and others.

There are two types of dry needling, superficial and deep dry needling. As the name suggests, superficial dry needling does not go down into the myofascial trigger points and like acupuncture, it is not painful. On the contrary, deep dry needling goes directly to these trigger points with the aim of eliciting a response. The idea is that the twitching indicates that the needle was able to reach the knot. Upon doing so, there is an immediate relief from the pain.

Muscles become more relaxed when touched by the needles and at the end of the treatment, pain is permanently reduced. In comparison to acupuncture, the needles only stay for a short amount of time and may be gently moved by the physiotherapist. Patients may report some discomfort similar to a weak electric shock when needles are inserted. After moving it to trigger the knot, this feeling goes quickly away and they feel much more relaxed. 

Some may still experience some discomfort a couple of hours to up to 2 days after going through the treatment. They may also need to go through a few sessions before lasting results can be seen. Still, patients report having an improved sense of well-being, greater mobility, less pain and more energy afterward.

Many doctors may recommend dry needling as a first option for pain management, but it is not suitable for everyone especially those with immune disorders or skin problems. Those who are also taking blood-thinning medication are not advised to go through dry needling. Therefore, a screening procedure may be done beforehand to ensure that the individual is suitable for the treatment. 

Comparing Acupuncture and Dry Needling 

Since both use needles, patients will experience a similar effect that is to be expected when needling is done. Whether it is a physiotherapist or an acupuncturist doing the procedure, the needles will bring about effects and benefits on the body and its parts. For example, stimulation affects the nervous system by activating the body’s normal pain-blocking and pain-relieving mechanisms. Another huge similarity is that dry needling also involves stimulating similar areas as in acupuncture. 

However, the ideology and theory behind the two approaches differ. Dry needling is considered mainly as a tool to treat myofascial trigger points. The goal is to address some issues with the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. Needles are then inserted in these specific regions of the body where the pain is felt.

On the other hand, acupuncture considers the different systems of the body to design the treatment and identify where needles are to be placed. The aim is to see an effect in all the body’s major systems.

The last main difference is the applicability. Acupuncture may be done alongside other treatments while dry needling is not as effective when combined with other approaches. 


Both treatments are highly widespread and have proven successful; otherwise they would not be so popular. One major consideration in choosing between the two is the type of condition you have. It is always good to consult with your doctor as well as to which is more appropriate for you based on your treatment needs.

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