Acupuncture Versus Dry Needling — What’s the Difference?

What is the Difference Between Dry Needling and Acupuncture?

Most people are familiar with acupuncture, even if they haven’t tried it, but less people have heard of dry needling — although that may be starting to change. If you have heard of both, it’s natural to wonder what the difference is, or if there even is a difference. After all, these two practices both involve carefully inserting small needles into the body, usually with the goal of relieving pain and improving function.

Despite these basic similarities, there are some key differences to understand. If you’re exploring options for pain management and want to know which may be right for you, learning more about acupuncture versus dry needling can help you make an informed and confident decision.  


What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a practice with roots in traditional Chinese medicine. During an acupuncture session, a specially trained practitioner carefully inserts thin needles in specific locations around the body. For hundreds of years, acupuncture has been used to treat everything from pain to infertility to allergies. 

According to many Chinese medical traditions, acupuncture helps to balance the flow of energy throughout the body, known as Chi or Qi. While modern medical researchers are still working to fully understand the mechanism, there is growing evidence that it may be effective for managing pain and relieving stress. Possible explanations for how acupuncture works include stimulation of pain-relieving endorphins, increasing blood flow and disrupting pain signals. 


What Is Dry Needling?

Dry needling is a more contemporary treatment rooted in modern physical therapy practices. It is actually more closely related to trigger point injections, which involve injecting anti-inflammatory medication into bundles of painful tissue, called trigger points, to break them up. Dry needling gets its name because it uses a needle without injecting any form of medication. 

The idea behind dry needling is that for certain trigger points and other problems affecting soft tissue, simply using the needle can stimulate blood flow and loosen tissue without additional injectable material. As a relatively newer practice, the body of research around dry needling is still growing, but it is a recognized treatment by the American Physical Therapy Association and other organizations. 


So, What’s the Difference?

The primary differences between acupuncture and dry needling include:

  • Medical tradition: Acupuncture is based in Chinese traditional medicine, while dry needling is a newer practice, generally originating in the area of physical medicine. 
  • Treatment areas: Acupuncture targets pressure points that are believed to be focal areas of the body’s natural energy. Dry needling usually targets trigger points, which are bundles of painful nerve and muscle tissue. 

There is also some debate about how different dry needling and acupuncture actually are. Some acupuncturists see dry needling as ultimately being rooted in acupuncture, and many practitioners use a blended approach with aspects of the two treatments. In contrast, many dry needling practitioners have an exclusive background in physical therapy or interventional pain management and see dry needling as firmly belonging to these disciplines.  


Deciding Which Is Right for You

Ultimately, the decision to undergo acupuncture, dry needling or both will depend on your diagnosis, your preferences as a patient and the advice you receive from your primary care doctor or pain management physician. When exploring any new treatment, it is important to research your prospective provider to ensure they are licensed to practice in your state. 

For example, acupuncture is licensed and overseen in Florida by the Board of Acupuncture, which has specific guidelines and requirements for practice. Dry needling is often licensed by physical therapy boards or chiropractic organizations. 


How Acupuncture and Dry Needling Fit with Pain Management Plans

Both forms of treatment can be part of an effective pain management plan that includes other options such as physical therapy, therapeutic massage, injections and other forms of interventional pain management. For most causes of chronic pain, it is also helpful to practice a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, good nutrition and avoiding tobacco products and excessive alcohol consumption. 

For conditions including hip pain, back pain, neck pain and knee pain, if conservative and alternative pain management treatments have been explored without bringing relief, minimally invasive spine surgery or orthopedic surgery can start to become a consideration.  


Reach Out to Physician Partners of America Today 

Are you living with chronic pain and want to learn more about your options for relief? Physician Partners of America (PPOA) can help you learn more about the causes of your pain and help you develop a personalized plan to reclaim your life. 

Contact our dedicated team to learn more, or schedule an appointment to start your pain relief journey today.