Dry Needling Therapy vs. Acupuncture

Differences b/w Dry Needling & Traditional Acupuncture

Both dry needling (DN) and traditional acupuncture (TA) involve the use of filament-like needles to penetrate the skin and bring about therapeutic effects. Because of these similarities, many patients and professionals alike often fall into the trap of thinking that dry needling and acupuncture are one and the same.

Although this is true to some extent, there are some distinct differences between traditional acupuncture and dry needling; differences that are worth knowing. This article provides a comprehensive analysis of the differences between DN and TA.

1. Historical Differences

The history of dry needling treatment can be traced back to the 1930’s when a British rheumatologist called Dr. John Kellgren established that it was possible to relieve muscle pain by applying manual pressure to specific areas of the muscle tissue and injecting a small amount of anesthetic into these tender spots.


His work was soon followed up by Dr. Jane Travell, an American cardiologist who discovered that simply inserting the needle, without anesthetic could also relieve pain from these tender spots. This is where the term dry needling’ originated from.

However, it would be important to note that at the time, hypodermic needles were used for DN. It was not until the 1980’s that Dr. Chen Gunn and others recommended the use of acupuncture needles in dry needling.

On the other hand, acupuncture is one of the oldest forms of traditional Chinese Medicine.  Documents dating back to 100 B.C. have the Evidence of its use. There is also evidence (in the form of a mummified body) which suggests that the practice is almost 5,000 years old.

2. Theoretical Differences

Dry needling comes from Western anatomical and neurophysiological theories and principles. Simply put, DN depends on a clear understanding of human anatomy and physiology particularly in regards to myofascial pain and trigger points.

Numerous clinical studies have supported the use of DN for the treatment of a wide range of musculoskeletal pain.

Acupuncture, however, is based on traditional Chinese medicine theories dating back thousands of years. These concepts include the need to balance Yin and Yang as well as the need to balance the flow of Chi in the body.

According to acupuncture theory, Chi flows through 12 main pathways (known as meridians) in the body. Each of these meridians is connected to specific internal organs and systems.

TCM experts believe that when Chi flows in a balanced and uninterrupted manner through these meridians, an individual’s overall health and well-being is enhanced.

 Inserting needles into specific acupuncture points along these meridians is believed to have the effect of rebalancing the flow of Chi in the body.

3. Procedural Differences

Dry needling treatment usually entails the insertion of filament-like needles to a length of between 5 mm and 10 mm into the muscle tissue above the trigger points. These needles are then retained for a short time of between 30 seconds and 3 minutes before removal.

This process triggers and enhances the release of endorphin which subsequently triggers the opiate receptors in the body thus bringing about pain relief. The process also results in the release of serum cortisol which plays a major role in reducing the body’s sensitivity to pain.

The process can be repeated up to 3 times if the patient is still experiencing residual pain. Dry needling procedures are carried out by trained physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals.

Acupuncture follows a different procedure that starts with the acupuncturist diagnosing the patient through:

inspection (of the face and the tongue),

auscultation & olfaction (listening to breathing and analyzing body odor),

inquiring (focuses on things such as appetite, thirst, defecation, pain, sleep, menses and even perspiration) and,

palpation which mainly concerns identifying the tender points (known as A-shi) and feeling radial pulses on both the left and right side.

The biggest difference between acupuncture and dry needling treatment is that acupuncture involves more retention of the needles (30-45 minutes). Professional acupuncturists who are distinctly different from physical therapists practice Acupuncture treatment.

4. Conditions Treated (Applications)

Dry needling treatment is normally used to treat musculoskeletal pain and more so myofascial pain syndrome. It is used in the sports industry for reducing inflammation of muscles, reducing pain and enhancing recovery.

Acupuncture treats a wider range of conditions that include musculoskeletal pains and other pain conditions such as neck pain, headaches, dental pain and joint pain.

dry needling vs acupuncture

Acupuncture has also been shown to be effective in treating conditions such as nausea, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, anxiety, infertility, a wide range of neurological disorders and even insomnia.

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