Acupuncture vs Dry Needling: What’s the Difference?


On the surface, both acupuncture and dry needling seem very similar. Both involve sterilized needles, with neither treatment injecting patients – but that’s often where the similarities end. What’s the difference between acupuncture and dry needling?

Acupuncture is the general process of applying needles to motor points across your body to help release blood and oxygen flow. Dry needling, meanwhile, focuses more on applying pressure to trigger points, helping to release knots of tension.

Before trying either acupuncture or dry needling yourself, it’s vital to learn a little more about what separates these treatments. In this guide, we’ll break down the finer points in further detail.

What are the main differences between acupuncture and dry needling?

Both acupuncture and dry needling can help to relieve tension and help reduce pain. Both processes can also help to restore mobility in areas of the body restricted by inflammation or severe discomfort.

Dry needling typically benefits people with acute, long-term muscle pain and tension. It’s considered more ‘direct’ than acupuncture in that needles are sometimes inserted specifically into areas of the body suffering from pain, tension, and restricted mobility. Dry needling is also known as trigger point needling – as it handles pain and tension at the source.

Acupuncture, meanwhile, can be a little more complex. Traditional acupuncture practitioners follow nerve maps and guides based on centuries of ancient medicine. Traditionally, ancient acupuncture followed the concepts of energy flowing through ‘channels’ across the body.

Nowadays, these principles have been adapted to help promote blood and oxygen flow across the body’s various networks. This means that even if you may only have pain or tension in your neck, an acupuncturist may suggest applying needles across your back, legs, and arms.

This is to help stimulate flow across the body – whereas dry needling may not always need such a complex approach.

Dry needling helps release tension and pain in smaller pockets of the body, too. Meanwhile, acupuncture can help ease larger, more widespread problems across the body. For example, acupuncture can help relieve some of the more complex pain you may experience with sciatica.

Is dry needling more painful than acupuncture?

Dry needling is not necessarily more painful than acupuncture, as the experience can differ from person to person. Professional, qualified needling and acupuncture will provide a warming pressure, perhaps gentler than many expect.

Some patients may find dry needling a little more pressurized than acupuncture as it directly affects trigger points. The stimulation may be a little stronger, while acupuncture may be gentler as it releases tension across the nerves and tissues of your body.

While patients may experience a slight difference in pressure and sensation, dry needling may be shorter in the process than acupuncture. Through acupuncture, practitioners may leave needles in the patient’s body to help stimulate nerves. 

Are acupuncturists trained differently to dry needle practitioners?

As acupuncture is a much older practice rooted in ancient Chinese medicine, studying and training in the procedure may take more time and dedication than dry needling. Dry needling is regarded as a simplified, even Westernized variation of traditional acupuncture principles, meaning training may not be as intensive or as detailed.

Professional acupuncturists offering both traditional and dry needling services will train widely in the ancient practices and principles as a priority. This helps them learn more about how the nervous system works and how the ancient principles of energy release translate to blood and oxygen flow.

Dry needling, as a relatively new procedure compared to acupuncture, requires specialist training and licensing in the US. Clinics and practitioners offering safe, sterilized needle practice are usually permitted to carry out the treatment. In any case, it’s vital to ensure your chosen clinic is licensed and qualified to perform Westernized needling.

Why might I choose acupuncture or dry needling?

A specialist may advise you to try dry needling if you have a particularly localized pocket of tension or pain. They may suggest a course of regular acupuncture, meanwhile, if you have knots across your body or if you suffer from conditions such as osteoarthritis that restrict your mobility.

In some cases, experts may recommend you try both treatments to reduce pain. Both acupuncture and dry needling, too, can be highly effective in preparing athletes and active people for intensive exercise.

You will likely benefit from acupuncture if you suffer from chronic or long-lasting pain that you’ve endured for a significant time.

Neither option is considered more effective, though acupuncture is recorded as beneficial for supporting a wider range of pain relief and flexibility restoration needs. Dry needling is typically recommended for muscle pain and strain which, too, can impact mobility.

When approaching either acupuncture or dry needling for the first time, choose carefully if you are working with an insurance carrier. In many cases, health insurers cover acupuncture, but dry needling is not always insurable as a more modern practice.

When attending a dry needling or acupuncture clinic for the first time, always discuss your concerns and options with your practitioner in detail. 

Booking acupuncture or dry needling

You don’t have to know the major differences between acupuncture and dry needling to book in with a local clinic. At Lycoming Orthopedic & Sports Acupuncture, we’ll help you find a treatment plan that helps you to manage pain and restore flexibility across your body.

Ultimately, both dry needling and acupuncture are ideal for helping restore a full range of movement across the body. Whether you are experiencing muscle tension or need help regaining strength through acute pain, we’ll be happy to discuss your needs and recommend regular treatments.

In some cases, we will recommend both treatments if we feel they’re necessary for your recuperation.
Neither acupuncture nor dry needling sessions have to be scary! If you’d like to know more about pain management, sports therapy, and mobility restoration through either option, make sure to book a first session with Lycoming Orthopedic & Sports Acupuncture today. Call our clinic directly, or book online with our web form.

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