At first glance, acupuncture and dry needling may look the same. Both can treat pain. And both use needles.
But the two treatments have a very different approach.
Here we share the difference between acupuncture and dry needling and what you need to know about each method.
What is dry needling and who is it for?
Dry needling sometimes referred to as intramuscular stimulation, is a modern practice used to ease muscular pain. Thin needles are inserted into ‘trigger points’ within the muscle to stimulate a twitch response and release tension. This can release cramping and also help flexibility, however it can also be a painful experience.
Dry needling: side effects and risks
Because of the way the needles are inserted into the patient’s muscles, dry needling can cause a number of mild side effects including bruising, bleeding, and temporary soreness.
Practitioners must also ensure they use sterile needles that are disposed of after each use to avoid infection and diseases. Because dry needling doesn’t require any certifications or state licensing, there are more concerns in this area than for acupuncture.
Who does dry needling help?
Dry needling is most commonly performed by physical, massage, and sports therapists on muscle injuries. However there is a lack of regulation and guidelines with this practice, so training can be minimal. If you choose to try dry needling you should therefore make sure to find a therapist with ample experience and prior recommendations.
Are acupuncture and dry needling the same thing?
Acupuncture and dry needling use the same hair-thin needles to treat patients however this is where the similarities end. While dry needling can sometimes be uncomfortable to endure, acupuncture is a gentle, pain-free experience that uses a more holistic approach.
Dry needling is a relatively new treatment, while the practice of acupuncture has been around for thousands of years and is based on the theory of Chinese healing.
Unlike dry needling, acupuncture requires a significant amount of training and examinations. Licensed acupuncturists need to undergo a 3+ year Master's program and take a state licensing exam as well as continuing their education every year to keep practicing.
Acupuncture vs dry needling: the treatment
A key difference between acupuncture and dry needling is the way in which the needles are used.
In dry needling, stainless steel needles are inserted into the skin, targeting tight areas or knots in the muscle. Most commonly, they are left here for 10-30 minutes. Another method includes the in and out technique, also known as pistoning, where the needles are repeatedly inserted and removed, although this is said to have very little benefit. Some practitioners may also use the non-trigger point technique, inserting needles around the area of pain rather than directly into it.
The goal of acupuncture is different to dry needling. This holistic treatment aims to bring the body back into balance, using the fascia, nervous system, gases, and electrical currents (combined known as qi) to create a healing environment throughout the body.
During your treatment, acupuncturists may go directly into the area of pain or tension or unlike dry needling, they may use another part of the body to activate the healing response depending on the patient and their condition. Some acupuncturists may stimulate the needles as well, again depending on the patient and their condition.
What can acupuncture and dry needling treat?
It also treats a wider variety of symptoms. Rather than just muscle pain and cramping, acupuncture can heal tension elsewhere in the body, such as headaches and arthritis, as well as other health issues including any of the below:
Fertility and women’s health
Nausea and vomiting
Mental health and anxiety
Do acupuncture and dry needling actually work?
When it comes to research, acupuncture has the upper hand. There are limited studies on the proven effects of dry needling, with one study claiming that there is no difference in outcome compared to other physical therapy treatments.
Another shared that stretching the muscles was actually just as effective as dry needling in improving flexibility.
On the other hand, many researchers have shown the effectiveness of acupuncture. One study showed that acupuncture was effective for treating chronic pain for at least 12 months after ongoing sessions. Others have demonstrated a reduction in the severity of depression as well as long-term benefits for headache and migraine sufferers.
"Dry needling is where I learned needles aren't so bad. One of my clients, my physical therapist, and my doctor all recommended acupuncture over dry needling me. Acupuncture was a game-changer. There were huge differences between dry needling and acupuncture where my healing really changed. The results I got from acupuncture changed my life!" - George U
Acupuncture vs dry needling: which option is best for you?
If you are already seeing a physical therapist for pain and they have the appropriate training, then dry needling may be a good option for you. If not then acupuncture is likely the best option.
Not only can acupuncture treat a wider variety of health problems, it’s also a more comfortable experience. This means your body will naturally relax and help to heal itself better. This is particularly important for those who have previously tried dry needling but haven’t seen results.
If dry needling hasn’t solved your aches and pains, it doesn’t mean acupuncture won’t work for you. At Meraki Family Wellness, we’ve helped a number of patients with chronic conditions get better results with acupuncture vs dry needling.