Dry Needling vs Acupuncture – What’s the Difference?

One of the most common asked questions regarding needling therapies is, Is dry needling the same as acupuncture?

You would think that it’s about two identical concepts, but the truth is that they are vastly different – the equipment used, the philosophy, the main ideas, and goals are the factors where the differences are observed.

You will choose the right procedure based on what you want to treat, and the aim of this article is to help you understand the similarities and differences between these two ideas.

Makari Wellness Brings Safe and Reliable Acupuncture and Dry Needling Treatments

Regardless of your needling preferences, Makari Wellness is here to help! We offer a wide range of acupuncture styles, and we do our best to create a truly tailored treatment for each client. As for those who face acute or chronic muscle pain, as well as any orthopedic conditions, we offer fast and effective dry needling treatments that can help you safely retrieve your health.

To book your appointment, contact us today at (888) 871-8889 and learn more about the most advanced techniques of dry needling and acupuncture in San Diego.


What is Dry Needling?

The main goal of dry needling is to relieve muscular or myofascial pain, which is why the popularity of this treatment keeps growing day by day.

During the procedure, a practitioner places the needles into trigger points or knots in your muscle or tissue. These are believed to be the cause of muscular pain, and practitioners claim that needles can reduce that pain and help the muscle retrieve its regular length.

The needles usually remain about 10 to 30 minutes inside your skin, but it generally depends on the practitioner and amount of pain that’s been treated. That said, the needles can remain in your skin for only a couple of seconds if that’s right.

This kind of therapy is extremely safe and convenient for treating sports injuries, muscle pain, and fibromyalgia pain, and it’s quite beneficial for retrieving blood flow and improving movement range.

What is Acupuncture?

Unlike dry needling, which has been popular for the last couple of decades, acupuncture is a discipline that has been practiced for even thousands of years.

The acupuncturist will insert 5 to 20 needles into the acupoints, which are, according to Traditional Chinese medicine, the places where your energy flow will rebalance.

Acupuncture is mostly practiced together with other therapies and diets that are the part of Traditional Chinese medicine, such as moxibustion, cupping therapy, Tui Na massage, Chinese herbs, etc.

There are various types, and styles of acupuncture, including auricular acupuncture, acupressure, electroacupuncture, micro acupuncture 48, but the two main categories that should be mentioned are Eastern and Western styles that are quite different in terms of practice, beliefs, and goals.

This therapy is convenient for treating various types of diseases, including chronic pain, arthritis, anxiety, depression, allergies, migraines, and even infertility. Also, it’s considered safe, painless, and useful.

What is the Difference Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling?

Even the definitions of these two ideas don’t reveal too many differences, which is why we are going to break them down into categories that will help you understand them better:

1.      Needles

Both treatments use needles, which are, in both cases, thin, small, and made of stainless steel.

Still, dry needling practitioners used hypodermic needles for trigger point stimulation in the beginning, but they gave up on them since they’re too expensive, highly regulated, and they usually cause more bleeding and greater tissue trauma than acupuncture needles.

That said, dry needling practitioners switched to acupuncture needles since they are more affordable, easily available, easy to use, and cause less trauma.

Acupuncture needles range up to 6 inches, and they are thin, flexible, and not prone to breakage, which is vital for successful therapy.

So, we can conclude that both treatments use the same needles nowadays, but their positioning and depth are quite different in both cases, which leads us to the next category.

2.      Application Methods

One of the significant differences between these two procedures lies in their application methods, which can be divided into two groups:


Traditional Chinese acupuncturists will place the needles superficially, which means that the usual depth of needle penetration varies from 0.12 to 0.39 inches. Besides, they usually stay inside your skin longer than during dry needling sessions.

On the other hand, dry needling insertion is much deeper since needles must reach the exact area of the target tissue, which mostly depends on the condition and relevant muscle. That said, the depth of needle penetration could even be from 1.97 to 3.94 inches.

Even though the mentioned depth may sound intimidating, especially when it comes to needling spinal parts, the practitioners have shown 100% accuracy so far.


The places of needle insertion are also considered a significant difference between these two treatments.

When it comes to acupuncture, needles are placed in a specific location so that the treatment process can impact each system, organ, or meridian.

Dry needling, on the contrary, doesn’t set the locations for specific diagnoses. That said, the entire process of placing needles will depend on the patient, the area that needs to be treated, as well as how the person’s symptoms present at that exact moment and where patients feel the pain.

3.      Treatment Focus

The treatment focus of both approaches is quite different – acupuncture, for instance, requires multiple sessions, promotes more significant reliance on the provider to maintain the patient’s homeostasis, and it can be observed as a process that uses only the needles to treat the patient.

However, dry needling is a part of a larger physical therapy plan, and it usually serves as an aid in achieving the primary treatment goal. For example, a dry needling practitioner can help patients achieve independence and go through rehab more consciously.

4.      Goals, Philosophy, and Beliefs

The entire idea of acupuncture is based upon Traditional Chinese medicine, and it’s aimed at opening the body’s energy flow and improving qi (chee), a life force that is believed to flow through meridians in our body. We now realize the ancients had a fundamental understanding of functional neurology and that acupuncture increased blood circulation and stimulates the nervous system to stimulate stem cell release, various neurotransmitters and awaken dormant nerve cells. We must simply realize the ancients expressed a wisdom in the language of their times that we are now just beginning to understand.

The acupuncture treatments are related to particular physical, emotional, and spiritual dysfunctions, which is why it’s commonly performed for healing pain, infertility, acne, illnesses, even stroke rehab, macular degeneration therapy, and many diseases that are not related to the musculoskeletal. This is because modern methods demonstrate acupunctures profound effects on the nervous system (parasympathetic and sympathetic), circulatory system, and the release of neuro-transmitters.  Acupuncture can help the body rewire its own nervous systems and change the blood chemistry effecting things like hormones, inflammation and mood.

The concept of dry needling is rooted in Western medicine, and it’s more evidence-based than acupuncture. It observes physiologic responses and neuromuscular diagnosis, which is why it promotes decreasing pain and muscle tightness while enhancing body movement at the same time. It is reclined to treating physical pain conditions.

5.      Treatment Responses

Many people are concerned about whether these therapies are entirely safe – the truth is that there is always a risk when a sharp object is introduced into your body, but generally speaking, both treatments come with minor side effects.

For example, you can face bruising, bleeding, dizziness, nausea, sweating, or fainting after any of the therapies, but none of the mentioned side effects should last more than one day. Still, if you don’t feel well for more than 48 hours after the treatment, you should contact your practitioner.

As you can see, the above-mentioned side effects are more or less the same for both treatments, but when it comes to post-needling soreness, the difference should be stated.

Generally, patients who tried acupuncture claim that they feel relaxed after the treatment and that they barely feel any soreness. On the other hand, soreness is quite frequent after dry needling, which isn’t something you should be concerned about.

6.      Practitioners’ Education and Training

To become an acupuncturist in the United States, you must first complete two years of undergraduate study before applying to school. Some acupuncture programs can also require you to have a bachelor’s degree.

Once you’re accepted, you can choose between a three-year program, where you become an acupuncturist, and a four-year program, which includes studying the Oriental Medicine Program, which combines acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.

When it comes to dry needling, the studying programs vary from state to state, but the certification mostly requires attending a minimum of two credentialed courses that include training in safe needling techniques, indications, and patient safety in general.

Still, you must be a licensed physical therapist before being able to attend the course. There are many arguments against physical therapists who perform dry needling – such arguments usually arise from the fact that courses last a couple of weeks, which is not enough for someone to learn how to perform the therapy.

However, physical therapists already have enough knowledge of the human body, anatomy, and movements, and dry needling courses can help them extend their knowledge in terms of practicing this therapy.

Overall, both professions require proper education and training, and you can be safe knowing that a certified and well-equipped practitioner takes care of your health condition.

Acupuncture vs Dry Needling for Osteoarthritis

It’s known that osteoarthritis can’t be cured, but such a condition can be treated to reduce the pain. Both acupuncture and dry needling are considered adequate for treating arthritis and its types, but when it comes to knee pain or osteoarthritis, non-trigger point dry needling is more effective than acupuncture.

This type of needling includes stimulation of surrounding muscles instead of trigger points, and it’s observed as a better approach since it can reduce pain and sensitivity more efficiently than needling just in the pain point.

Final Words

Both therapies bring a lot of benefits to patients, and you can choose one based on your preferences and conditions you want to treat. Although their philosophy, methods, and beliefs are quite different, they share the same, and the most vital goal, which is patient wellness.

That said, no matter what issue you might be facing, don’t be afraid to step into the world of alternative treatments that can be very helpful in improving your spiritual, emotional, and physical health.