For thousands of years, people have looked to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to help alleviate their daily aches, pains, and discomforts. A pillar practice of TCM, acupuncture is scientifically proven to holistically heal the body and has made its way to Western countries.
Newer to the world of Western medicine, however, is dry needling – which also involves using fine needles to treat specific points on the body. Both practices can provide effective pain relief from the inside out, but exactly how they are executed varies.
So, what are the differences between dry needling vs acupuncture? Here's a deep dive into the pros and cons of each, and how to decide which one is right for you.
What is Dry Needling?
Dry needling involves inserting several filiform or hypodermic needles into the body’s “trigger points” (or knotted areas) to help increase blood flow and relieve muscle pain, spasms, or tension. These treatments are primarily used to treat a range of musculoskeletal conditions – such as muscle pain, myofascial dysfunction or myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) – as well as common sports injuries.
Since the needles don’t inject fluid into the body, they are referred to as “dry.” Typically, they are left in the skin for 10-30 minutes during treatment. However, when the in-and-out technique is applied, the needles are inserted and removed immediately. Meanwhile, the non-trigger-points technique involves inserting needles around trigger points to stimulate the entire central nervous system. What technique is used depends on the pain you are trying to treat.
A fairly modern practice within Western medicine, dry needling is supported by a limited amount of research and has no regulatory agency (which means extensive training and credentials are not required to perform it). However, a handful of studies have demonstrated immediate or short-term pain improvements with this type of therapy – thus its recent rise in popularity.
What is Acupuncture?
A centuries-old practice within TCM, acupuncture works with the connective tissue to send messages to the brain that alter brain chemistry. To redistribute the body’s flow of energy, licensed acupuncturists insert between 12-30 long, thin needles at 2,000 possible strategic pressure points on your body, known as the meridian line. (Don’t worry – most patients experience little to no discomfort during treatment, which are 30 minutes!).
Doing so elicits a physiological response, stimulating your nerves, muscles, and connective tissue to release endorphins (aka your brain’s natural painkillers) and help your body relax. More recently, people have used acu to help alleviate stress, address infertility issues, and increase their longer-term wellness.
Dry Needling vs Acupuncture
Visually speaking, it would be easy for someone to confuse dry needling with acupuncture and vice versa. However, there are actually more differences than similarities between the two therapeutic practices. We’ve broken them down below:
- Both involve puncturing the skin with fine needles to prick specific points on the body
- Both elicit a physiological response
- Both can provide pain relief
- Both are alternative forms of medicine
- Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years; Dry needling is relatively new
- Acupuncture is associated with Eastern medicine; Dry needling is associated with Western medicine
- Acupuncture has short- and long-term benefits; Dry needling has short-term benefits
- Acupuncture prioritizes the person, not the problem; Dry needling prioritizes the problem, not the person
- Acupuncture is backed by years of scientific research; Research is limited on the efficiency of dry needling
- Acupuncture treats physical and mental issues by altering brain chemistry (i.e. increasing dopamine, epinephrine, etc.); Dry needling primarily treats physical conditions by releasing tension
- Acupuncture is performed by licensed healers; Dry needling is performed by some doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists
Benefits of Dry Needling
If you’ve ever begged your massage therapist to “Please get rid of these knots in my shoulders!” to only have the knot come back, then you’d probably benefit from dry needling. Less painful than a prick on the finger and more effective when paired with physical therapy, dry needling can quite literally address your ailments from head to toe – from neck pain to lower-back pain to foot pain.
Patients suffering from fibromyalgia, sciatica, repetitive stress disorder, and other neuromuscular conditions can also use dry needling to treat their chronic (or acute) pain and restricted movement. In some cases, it can even be considered as a safer alternative to surgery or pain medication. What’s more: This modern-day technique has been shown to naturally correct posture, speed up recovery, and increase flexibility.
Benefits of Acupuncture
Since acupuncture focuses on preventive and curative internal care, treatments can help with a wide range of mental and physical issues. The best part? Our custom treatments at WTHN are specifically tailored to your body’s stressors – be it allergies, digestive health, a common cold, or just plain stress.
Although commonly used to treat daily aches and pains – such as osteoarthritis, muscle stiffness, tension headaches, and more – acupuncture goes beyond just your physical health. Feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed? An acu treatment can balance your hormones and boost your overall mood. Having trouble falling or staying asleep? Studies show that acu can improve your sleep cycle and promote relaxation, too!
Risks of Dry Needling
Although rare, imprecise dry needling can lead to pneumothorax (lung puncture), nerve damage, vascular damage and visceral (abdominal organ) damage. Therefore, it is important to confirm your doctor or therapist’s training before scheduling your treatment — especially considering no formal training is required to perform treatment. Also worth keeping in mind: Little is known about the true effectiveness of dry needling since it’s so new, and more research needs to be done.
Side effects may include:
- Bruising or bleeding
- Temporary soreness or pain
- Fatigue or weakness
If you’re on the fence about dry needling, cupping is another option worth considering – as it also promotes better blood flow, enhances circulation, and releases muscle tension. During treatment, the practitioner puts heated cups on your face or body, thus creating suction under them that leaves fist-sized circular bruises on the skin. Curious? Learn everything there is to know about cupping here or schedule an appointment with one of our WTHN healers.
Risks of Acupuncture
As with any therapeutic treatment, acupuncture does come with a few risks and side effects. Those who have a bleeding disorder, are taking blood thinners, are pregnant, or use a pacemaker have an increased risk of complications during treatment. The use of non-sterile needles can also lead to infection or disease, but working with licensed acupuncturists (such as WTHN healers) significantly reduces this risk.
Side effects may include:
- Mild aching sensation at the acupuncture point
Which One is Right for You?
While it ultimately comes down to personal preference, there are a few reasons you might choose one treatment over the other. For instance, if you’re specifically hoping to relieve muscle pain and tightness, dry needling is a viable option.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking treatment for a mental or physical condition – such as anxiety and depression, insomnia, period cramps, or an unhealthy gut – acupuncture is most likely the answer.
Acupuncture generally has more definitive research and regulation as a long-established practice while the effectiveness of dry needling is too new to medicine to know for sure.
Ready to get started on your healing journey? Explore the benefits of acupuncture memberships at WTHN.