Dry Needling vs Acupuncture

Dive into the differences between dry needling techniques and acupuncture for more informed decisions to improve patient outcomes.

By Gale Alagos on Jul 01, 2024.

Fact Checked by Nate Lacson.

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What is dry needling?

Dry needling is a modern therapeutic technique for treating muscle pain and dysfunction. It involves inserting thin, sterile needles into specific trigger points within muscles. These trigger points are taut bands or knots that can cause pain locally and in other areas of the body. The goal of dry needling is to relieve muscle pain, release tension, improve blood flow, and stimulate the body's natural healing processes.

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What is acupuncture?

On the other hand, acupuncture is an ancient healing practice rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body, known as acupuncture points. These points are believed to be connected to pathways that conduct healing energy throughout the body. Acupuncturists stimulate these points to balance the body's energy flow and promote healing.

A trained and licensed acupuncturist uses this technique to treat a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, migraines, neck pain, and even some mental health issues.

Dry Needling vs Acupuncture

The following differences are notable between dry needling and acupuncture


Dry needling is a relatively modern technique developed in the West based on a contemporary understanding of neuromuscular dysfunction. It emerged in the 1940s and has evolved with advancements in pain science, intramuscular stimulation, and musculoskeletal medical treatment (Dommerholt, 2011). Acupuncture, on the other hand, is an ancient practice rooted in traditional medicine.

Needle placement

Practitioners perform dry needling to target specific trigger points within muscles. These trigger points are taut bands or knots that can cause pain and dysfunction. The needles are inserted directly into these points, which may or may not correspond to traditional acupuncture points.

On the other hand, acupuncturists insert needles at specific acupuncture points along meridians, which are believed to be energy pathways in the body. This non-trigger points technique helps treat the central nervous system.

Types of needles

Both practices typically use thin, solid, stainless steel needles. However, dry needling may sometimes use slightly thicker needles to better manipulate muscle tissue. Acupuncture needles are generally finer and are often left in place for longer periods.

Number of needles

Dry needling sessions usually involve fewer needles, often focusing on a specific problematic area. The number can vary but typically ranges from 1 to 10 needles. Acupuncture treatments may use more needles, sometimes 10 to 20 or more, as they often simultaneously address and relieve pain in multiple body systems.

Session length

Dry needling sessions are generally shorter, lasting about 10-30 minutes. The needles are manipulated or quickly inserted and removed. Acupuncture sessions are typically longer, ranging from 30 to 60 minutes, with needles remaining in place for most of that time.

Practitioner qualifications

Dry needling can be performed by various healthcare professionals, including physical therapists, chiropractors, and some medical doctors, after completing specific training programs. Acupuncture, being a distinct medical system, requires more extensive training. Practitioners must complete accredited programs and obtain licensing, typically involving 3-4 years of graduate-level study.

What's the importance of learning the difference?

Understanding the distinctions between dry needling and acupuncture is crucial for healthcare professionals to provide optimal patient care. This knowledge enables practitioners to make informed decisions about treatment approaches, potentially improving outcomes and patient satisfaction. It also aids in effective communication with patients, helping to manage expectations and obtain informed consent.

Recognizing these differences is essential for maintaining professional competence and staying within one's scope of practice. Many regulatory bodies have specific guidelines for each technique, and understanding these can help avoid legal and ethical issues.

Furthermore, this knowledge facilitates interprofessional collaboration. By understanding the strengths and limitations of each approach, practitioners can make appropriate referrals, enhancing the overall quality of patient care.

Key takeaways

In conclusion, these takeaways can help summarize the difference between dry needling and acupuncture.

  • Distinct origins: Dry needling is rooted in Western medicine, while acupuncture stems from Traditional Chinese Medicine.
  • Treatment focus: Dry needling targets specific muscle trigger points, whereas acupuncture aims to balance the overall body energy.
  • Technique variation: Dry needling often uses an in-and-out technique, while acupuncture typically leaves needles in place for longer periods.
  • Practitioner qualifications: Dry needling can be performed by various healthcare professionals with specific training, while acupuncture requires more extensive education and licensing.
  • Evidence base: Both techniques show promise in pain management, but acupuncture has a more extensive research history.
  • Integration potential: Understanding both approaches allows for possible synergistic use in comprehensive treatment plans.

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Our customizable templates can be tailored within our clinical documentation software to include relevant information, such as trigger point locations or standard acupuncture point locations used during treatments.

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