I’ll explain to you dry needling vs acupuncture including how they’re different and how they’re similar. Since I provide both dry needling and acupuncture in our Cary, NC chiropractic office, I get the question “What is different about acupuncture and dry needling?” almost every day.
We provide chiropractic care for patients suffering from complaints like back pain, neck pain, hip pain, and many conditions of the spine. Our chiropractic office focuses on treating your injuries and conditions involving neuro-musculoskeletal complaints, and dry needling or acupuncture is often a part of our treatments. Both can be an excellent treatment at getting you pain-free, able to recover faster and get you back to doing what you love.
Despite the growing popularity of dry needling and acupuncture, you may be confused about why they’re different. My goal is to show you how they’re different, but also the same in many ways, and hopefully give you a better idea of which may be the best treatment for your shoulder pain, sciatica, sprain, strain, or whatever is bothering you. Keep in mind that although this list of differences and similarities between dry needling and acupuncture is long, it may not be exhaustive.
Let’s talk about the differences between dry needling and acupuncture first, then I’ll tell you how they’re also similar in many ways.
What are the Differences Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling?
Acupuncture most commonly involves the placement of needles for a longer period of time than in dry needling.
- Acupuncturists typically leave needles in place for some time while you lay or sit, although there are exceptions. This is not a true universal difference between acupuncture and dry needling because some practitioners do leave needles in place for a period but it’s not as prevalent.
Acupuncture is used to create improvement/change in a wider variety of conditions that may be associated with any of your body’s systems, while dry needling treatment is used to address complaints associated with your nervous system, muscular system, and skeletal system.
- Both acupuncture and dry needling are used to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints, but only acupuncture is used to treat other non-neuromusculoskeletal complaints like digestion issues or mental-emotional conditions for example.
Acupuncture treatment is much older than dry needling
- Acupuncture has been used for 3000 years and dry needling has been in use for roughly 80 years (since the 1940s) but has recently become more popular.
The practice of acupuncture includes something called moxibustion, which is non-existent in dry needling.
- In classical acupuncture, moxibustion or the burning of an herb called Moxa or Mugwart over energy(qi) channels or meridians is an important part of treatment, but not all acupuncturists use moxibustion.
- Dry needling does not include the practice of moxibustion.
Acupuncture has generally greater restrictions on who can perform it.
- Most acupuncture is performed by acupuncturists and doctors of Chinese medicine. Medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy can also perform acupuncture with adequate training, chiropractors can practice acupuncture in many states, and naturopathic doctors can in some states. Veterinarians can perform acupuncture on animals with additional training and dentists have a limited ability to perform acupuncture with adequate training.
- Dry needling covers a wider scope of professionals. Chiropractors and physical therapists are the most common practitioners using dry needling. Medical doctors and osteopathic doctors can practice dry needling with adequate training. Other professionals who may do dry needling include physical therapy assistants, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, athletic trainers, and veterinarians (in animals.)
Many who practice acupuncture approach treatment from an eastern medicine perspective, while dry needling is applied using western medical diagnostic criteria and principles.
- At our office, we approach treatment from a western medical diagnostic standpoint and use acupuncture or dry needling based on our conventional exam findings and treatment goals. This is not universal, however, and many practitioners who practice acupuncture use eastern diagnosis criteria like pulse diagnosis, tongue diagnosis, and other methods not used in conventional medicine.
- Dry needling does not put value in eastern diagnosis techniques.
Acupuncture is typically used in conjunction with different treatments than dry needling, although this is not universal.
- Acupuncture is oftentimes used together with Chinese medicine (herbs) and qigong.
- Dry needling is more commonly used with other conventional treatments in physical medicine like joint manipulation and mobilization (chiropractic adjustments), soft tissue work, rehab exercise programs.
Want to check out what a dry needling treatment looks like? See a few of our dry needling videos below.
How are Acupuncture and Dry Needling Similar?
Acupuncture and Dry Needling generally use the same types of needles.
- Filiform (solid, not hollow) fine needles made of stainless steel that are disposable.
- Acupuncture may use some unique needles that aren’t used in dry needling like very small and fine needles (for some specific points), plum blossom needles (a small light hammer-like needle with many points on the end of it, ear seeds (not really needles but small metal bee bees that are made to stay in place in locations like the ear.)
Both acupuncture and dry needling can be used to treat neuromusculoskeletal issues effectively.
- There is evidence to support both acupuncture and dry needling in some neuromusculoskeletal conditions.
- Each treatment has value and may be helpful for the same or different populations. There are a lot of factors involved in whether acupuncture of dry needling may be more effective or applicable for a specific patient.
There are a variety of different techniques for both acupuncture and dry needling.
- Acupuncture has many different styles from classical to modern, and dry needling also has different application styles.
- If you visit two different acupuncturists or professionals who practice dry needling, chances are you may notice a difference in how they apply treatment although they’re both applying the same treatment.
Acupuncture and dry needling are both are considered “conservative care.”
- Conservative care means that these treatments are first-line approaches for conditions such as back pain.
- Conservative treatments are treatments that don’t involve surgery or complex procedures.
Acupuncture and dry needling can both be used for wellness or performance purposes.
- Both treatments are commonly used for wellness purposes, prevention, or to improve performance in athletes.
Both treatments can be used to treat trigger points.
- During acupuncture, a therapist may treat what’s called an ah-shi point, which is relatively analogous to a trigger point.
- A big part of dry needling is reducing trigger points and their symptoms, which are taught and tender areas of muscle fibers that create local or referred discomfort.
During acupuncture and dry needling, the practitioner will often twist, piston, or otherwise manipulate the needle.
- Acupuncture practitioners often manipulate a needle to move qi or when treating ah-shi (tender) points.
- Dry needling practitioners often manipulate the needle to create a local twitch response (LTR) in a trigger point.
Is Dry Needling or Acupuncture Better?
I wouldn’t go as far to say that dry needling or acupuncture is better, they can both be beneficial and oftentimes for similar conditions. It really depends on what injury or condition you’re dealing with along with many other factors.
If you’re looking for pain management for a condition like chronic back pain, acupuncture may be more helpful but we can’t say for certain. If you’re suffering from a condition or injury that needs a well-rounded treatment strategy and a rehab exercise program, it may be better to find a practitioner who can use dry needling in conjunction with other treatments.
If you view your health from a more holistic, natural, or eastern-medicine perspective, then acupuncture may resonate more with you than dry needling. Dry needling may be better for those with sports injuries, acute injuries, or those who are open to western medicine and rehab approaches.
The main point is that I can’t tell you which one would be better for you. Both treatments have value and can help relieve pain from many neuro-musculoskeletal injuries and conditions. There is very little risk to either treatment so it’s also great to know that you won’t have to worry about too many side effects or adverse events.
If you have any questions about dry needling and acupuncture, or which may be right for you don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our providers and ask!
Dr. Jason Williams DC is a chiropractic physician practicing at AccessHealth Chiropractic in Cary, NC. He treats neuromusculoskeletal pain and injuries using chiropractic manipulation, dry needling, acupuncture, rehab exercise strategies, and other supportive therapies. Primary areas of focus include back pain, neck pain, muscular pain, extremity pain, and orthopedic injuries. Dr. Williams is experienced in treating athletes, especially those in the CrossFit, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and MMA community.
If you’re interested in whether he or another AccessHealth provider can help you, navigate to our contact page or follow this link to request an appointment.