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Acupuncture vs Dry Needling: Understanding the Differences and Benefits

Updated: Jul 19


Acupuncture vs dry needling? Both are techniques commonly used to address musculoskeletal pain and promote overall well-being. While both involve the insertion of thin needles into the body, there are distinct differences between the two approaches. In this article, we will explore acupuncture and dry needling, comparing their origins, methodologies, and benefits. By understanding these differences, you can make an informed decision about which technique may be most suitable for your needs.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Acupuncture?

  2. The Origins of Acupuncture

  3. How Acupuncture Works

  4. Benefits of Acupuncture

  5. What is Dry Needling?

  6. The Origins of Dry Needling

  7. How Dry Needling Works

  8. Benefits of Dry Needling

  9. Acupuncture vs dry Needling: Key Differences

  10. Which Technique Should You Choose?

  11. Precautions and Risks

  12. Finding a Qualified Practitioner

  13. Conclusion

  14. FAQs

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a Traditional Chinese Medicine technique that has been practiced for thousands of years. It involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body, known as acupuncture points or acupoints. These acupoints are connected by meridians and are related to the functions of the organs of the body, and the primary aim is to provide balance to the organism and, in that way, provide relief to all kinds of pains and improve all organs functions since allergies to digestion, skin problems, fertility, etc.

The Origins of Acupuncture

Acupuncture & Moxa
Acupuncture & Moxa

Acupuncture originated in ancient China and is deeply rooted in TCM. According to historical records, acupuncture has been practiced in China for over 2,500 years. Acupuncture is a very complex medical treatment that focuses on the harmony of the whole body rather than treating just a symptom. Our body is a very complex system where every part is related and dependent on each other.

For instance, if a patient suffers from neck pain, rather than just focusing only on the muscle tension of the area, we make a thorough diagnosis to find out where is the origin of the unbalance and then find the proper acupuncture point locations that can reduce pain and bring back global wellness to the patient.

How Acupuncture Works

Acupuncture is based on the concept of restoring the balance of the whole organism. The classical concept is that work on the Qi, a healing energy flow, and the reality is that it stimulates the central nervous system.

The acupuncturists insert very thin stainless steel needles on standard acupuncture point locations to relieve muscle pain and to stimulate the proper function of all body organs. The needles used in acupuncture are typically very thin and cause minimal discomfort. Acupuncture sessions can target various health concerns, including pain management, stress reduction, headaches, menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia pain, and many other therapeutic effects all over the organism.

Benefits of Acupuncture

Acupuncture offers a range of potential benefits for both physical and mental well-being. Some of the common benefits associated with acupuncture include:

  1. Pain Relief: Acupuncture has been widely and effectively used to manage acute and chronic pain conditions such as back pain, migraines, and arthritis.

  2. Stress Reduction: Acupuncture sessions can help alleviate stress and promote relaxation.

  3. Improved Sleep: Acupuncture may aid in improving sleep quality and treating insomnia.

  4. Enhanced Mental Clarity: Acupuncture is believed to promote mental clarity and improve focus.

  5. Support for Overall Wellness: Regular acupuncture treatments can support the body's natural healing processes and enhance overall well-being.

  6. Internal organ function: Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to improve digestion, acid reflux, constipation, respiratory issues like asthma or allergies, skin issues like psoriasis or eczema, urinary conditions, eyesight problems, etc.

What is Dry Needling?

Dry needling is a modern technique that uses acupuncture needles to try to resolve musculoskeletal issues, but missing thousands of years of achieved traditional knowledge of Chinese medicine.

Dry needling is a symptomatic relief technique primarily based on Western medicine principles. Often practiced by physical therapists and sports injury therapists.

Its goal is mostly to treat pain. The practitioner inserts thin needles into specific trigger points in the muscles, tendons, or connective tissues.

Dry Needling
Dry Needling

The Origins of Dry Needling

Dry needling originated in the 20th century and was primarily developed by a Western medical physician.

*"Modern trigger point dry needling has its origins in the work of Karel Lewit of Czechoslovakia. In his classic work, he examined the short and long‐term effects of dry needling in the treatment of myofascial pain in 241 patients with 312 painful MTrP sites. He reported an immediate analgesic effect without hypesthesia in 86% of cases when the most painful location was engaged by the needle."


Even though many doctors and physical therapists that use this technique says it is different from Acupuncture, it actually is not.

This way of using needles is too similar to the "Ashi points" Acupuncture technique, which is basically inserting needles into painful points, which can actually increase pain in an injured area.

This is one of the easiest techniques used, typically by poorly trained acupuncturists.

How Dry Needling Works

Dry needling works by targeting trigger points, which are areas of tightness or hyperirritability in muscles or soft tissues.

The insertion of the needles into these trigger points aims to stimulate a localized healing response and release tension. The needles used in dry needling are also thin, similar to acupuncture needles, but the technique focuses only on addressing muscular issues rather than balancing energy flow.

Benefits of Dry Needling

Dry needling is commonly used by physical therapists to address various musculoskeletal conditions and can provide the following benefits:

  1. Alleviate Pain: Dry needling can help relieve muscle pain, tension headaches, and other forms of musculoskeletal pain.

  2. Improved Range of Motion: By targeting trigger points, dry needling can enhance flexibility and restore the normal range of motion.

  3. Faster Recovery: Dry needling can promote faster recovery from sports injuries or muscular strains.

  4. Muscle Relaxation: The technique can help release muscle knots and promote relaxation in specific muscle groups.

  5. Complementary Treatment: Dry needling can be used in conjunction with other physical therapy techniques to optimize treatment outcomes.

Acupuncture vs dry Needling: Key Differences

Acupuncture needles

While both acupuncture and dry needling involve the insertion of needles, they differ in various aspects:

  1. Philosophy and Origin: Acupuncture is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, focusing on restoring the balance of the whole body, as well as treating musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction at its root, while dry needling is based on Western medical principles, targeting only symptoms.

  2. Training: While a normal physical therapist just does minimal training of a short 2-3 weekend seminar, a trained and licensed acupuncturist does extensive training of 3 to 5 years.

  3. Treatment Goals: Acupuncturists insert needles aiming to restore the flow of qi and balance energy, addressing a wide range of health conditions, including reversing musculoskeletal pain, promoting muscle relaxation, and improving range of motion. Dry needling only focuses on alleviating musculoskeletal pain, promoting muscle relaxation, and improving range of motion.

Dry needling is like a poor-quality acupuncture technique.

Which Technique Should You Choose?

Acupuncture Meridians
acupuncture meridians

You should not have to choose between dry needling and acupuncture.

There are some states where dry needling is not allowed, like California, Florida, Idaho, New York, Washington, Hawaii, and South Dakota, because their state health boards consider dry needling techniques an intrusion of physical therapy in the TCM field and that non-acupuncturists lack proper training to administer acupuncture safely.

Acupuncture seeks and promotes more benefits than dry needling. Acupuncture is safer, has more benefits, its practitioners have better training, and it has thousands of years of evolution.

On the other hand, dry needling was just "invented" in the 40's or 50's, lacking the theory, experience, and most of the efficacy of Acupuncture and TCM.

Most physical therapists claim that they insert needles on trigger points, but 90% of the time, those points are also classic acupuncture locations. If an acupuncturist needs 3-5 years of training to become licensed, a physical therapist should have the same training to be able to use this amazing tool.

Precautions and Risks

Both acupuncture and dry needling are generally safe when performed by trained professionals. However, it is essential to consider the following precautions:

  1. Infection Risk: Ensure that sterile needles are used during the procedure to minimize the risk of infection. (All licensed acupuncturists take these precautions)

  2. Bleeding or Bruising: Minor bleeding or bruising may occur at the needle insertion sites, but these are usually temporary.

  3. Allergic Reactions: Inform your practitioner about any known allergies to avoid potential allergic reactions to materials used in the procedure. (This is extremely rare)

  4. Pregnancy: If you are pregnant, inform your practitioner, as certain acupuncture points may be contraindicated during pregnancy.

  5. Existing Medical Conditions: If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking medications, discuss them with your practitioner to ensure the suitability of the treatment.

Finding a Qualified Practitioner

To ensure safe and effective treatment, it is crucial to find a qualified practitioner for both acupuncture and dry needling. Consider the following when selecting a practitioner:

  1. Training and Credentials: Verify the practitioner's qualifications, certifications, and training in their respective field.

  2. Experience: Inquire about the practitioner's experience with treating conditions similar to yours.

  3. Client Reviews: Read reviews or seek recommendations from trusted sources to gauge the practitioner's reputation and patient satisfaction.

  4. Communication: Choose a practitioner who listens to your concerns, explains the procedure thoroughly, and addresses any questions you may have.


Acupuncture and dry needling are similar techniques that offer potential benefits for addressing musculoskeletal pain and promoting overall well-being.

Acupuncture has more benefits, more experience backing its results, and a wider scope of practice.

Remember to consult qualified practitioners to discuss your specific symptoms and goals before undergoing any treatment.


1. Is acupuncture painful?

Acupuncture needles are extremely thin, and the insertion is generally painless. You may feel a slight sensation or tingling at the needle insertion points, but it should not be overly uncomfortable.

2. Can acupuncture treat all types of pain?

Acupuncture has been used to manage various types of pain, including chronic pain conditions. However, it is essential to consult with a qualified acupuncturist to assess your specific condition and determine if acupuncture is suitable for you.

3. Is dry needling only for athletes?

No, dry needling is a subcategory of Acupuncture and is not exclusively for athletes. It is a technique that can benefit anyone experiencing musculoskeletal pain, regardless of their level of physical activity or athletic background. However, we suggest choosing a licensed acupuncturist instead of a dry-needling therapist to maximize benefits and minimize side effects.

4. How many sessions of acupuncture or dry needling are needed for results?

The number of sessions required can vary depending on the individual and the condition being treated. Some people may experience relief after just a few sessions, while others may require more prolonged treatment. Your practitioner can provide a personalized treatment plan based on your needs.

5. Are there any side effects of dry needling?

Minor side effects such as temporary soreness, bruising, or bleeding at the needle insertion points can occur.

However, many professional acupuncturists suggest that since dry needling practitioners lack proper training, they have more risk of producing side effects in their treatments.

In my professional experience, I have had many patients report that they had incurred painful side effects after having a physical therapist perform dry needling on them.

Research demonstrates that Acupuncture is much safer; and has significantly greater benefits than Dry Needling services.

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