Acupuncture vs. Dry Needling: What You Need to Know!

Arvada acupunture

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about dry needling from patients and from my fellow Acupuncturists.  If you haven’t heard about it yet, you probably will soon as it’s becoming quite popular with Physical Therapists, MD’s and Chiropractors but here is some quick background on it.  Pain specialists have been using injections in trigger points or muscle attachments for years to reduce pain and try to heal musculoskeletal disorders.  Eventually a doctor began to use the needle in the same locations but wouldn’t use any injectable solutions (saline, steroids, etc) and so it began to be termed “dry needling.”  The natural next step was to begin using Acupuncture needles as they were easily accessible and came in varying lengths and gauges.  Because of this, I think a lot of people are becoming confused about the difference between Acupuncture and Dry Needling and it is quickly becoming an issue between Acupuncturists and the other practitioners who utilize this technique.  With all this tension and because of the questions I get from my patients… here is an Acupuncturists view on this sensitive subject.

Acupuncture Dry Needling
Philosophy Acupuncture is based on thousand years old medicine and is difficult to understand how it works.  When treating pain, I like to compare the body to a plumbing system.  Pain= big old hairball in the pipe. Treatment= open up the pipes above/below the pain and get the hairball to move so the water can flow again. If it hurts… poke it.  Generally the intention of dry needling is to cause micro-damage to the area to force the body to send the resources to the area and heal the tissue.  Also aids in releasing muscle fibers.
Training As an Acupuncturist, I had to take approx. 3500 hours (4 years in a Graduate school) of training that included class work and clinical/supervised work.  We are trained within inches of medical doctors because more people are beginning to use alternative forms of medicine as their primary health care.  We also have continuing education we have to complete. We also must take a board exam to be nationally certified and maintain state licensees. In researching this, most courses I found courses that were weekend events, so less than 24 hours of training is required.
Pain Level There are varying schools of thought on how much sensation you need to get with the Acupuncture needle.  True Chinese style of Acupuncture would say you MUST feel the needles.  Japanese style is much gentler and any sensation is minimal. I have never had dry needling but from the patients who have told me about it… it’s very painful.
Outcome This of course varies with each person, with each issue and with each Acupuncturist trying to fix the issue.  In general, acupuncture is very effective in treating pain but can also be used to treat almost any other physical, mental, emotional issue you can think of. Research is showing dry needling to be effective in the treatment of pain.  And the patients who I have that have received dry needling, also say it has been effective for them.
Verdict Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years and is still gaining steam so it is obviously effective in treating a lot of different things. Dry needling is also gaining steam and is probably here to stay.  It seems effective in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders and seems to provide lasting results.


So there it is… my best (non-biased) attempt at a side-by-side of a breakdown of Acupuncture vs Dry Needling.  I believe there is plenty of room for both of these techniques as long as both stay within the realm of their limits and always put the patients needs first.  But as an Acupuncturist speaking to any Physical Therapists, MD’s or Chiropractors using Dry Needling I have these requests:

  1. Explain to people that what you are doing is different than Acupuncture because you are breeding an entire population of people who don’t know the difference.
  2. Try acupuncture for yourself so you too can see that we work on a beautiful system of looking at the body and treating it as a whole rather than just addressing painful trigger points.
  3. Please get more training!!!  You are sticking needles into peoples bodies and there is lots of stuff under the skin that is easy to injure if you aren’t properly trained.  Acupuncturists are banding together to force this issue… it’s not that we’re attacking you and what you’re doing, its that we are trying to protect the patients.  People getting hurt with Acupuncture needles will only reflect poorly on Acupuncturists even if we’re not the ones doing it.

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Jana Royer-Morian