Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture

As a DPT who performs dry needling for clients, I often get asked, “What’s the difference between dry needling and acupuncture?”

It’s a great question, because they’re certainly not the same. I always make clear that while I have respect for acupuncture, it’s not the same as dry needling.

In this blog post, we’re going to highlight the differences between dry needling physical therapy and acupuncture. Let’s get started.

What is Acupuncture?

I always start by saying dry needling is not acupuncture.

Acupuncture refers to a traditional Chinese method where an acupuncturist inserts thin needles into various locations of the body. Acupuncturists claim this helps to balance the flow of energy in the body, and it may help relieve pain and release endorphins.

The North Carolina Acupuncture Licensing Board’s (NCALB) general public information page defines acupuncture, saying, “The theory and practice of acupuncture is based on Oriental medicine (also known as traditional Chinese medicine), a comprehensive natural health care system that has been used in Asian countries for thousands of years to preserve health and diagnose, treat and prevent illness.”

How Does Acupuncture Work?

I explain that I have a ton of respect for acupuncturists and their work is incredibly helpful for certain clients.

However, for me to explain what acupuncture is and how it works in my own words would be a disservice. So again, I pull from the NCALB’s general public information page:

“Acupuncture treats health conditions by stimulating “acu-points” found at specific locations on the surface of the body. Acupuncturists stimulate the acu-points by inserting very thin needles through the skin to produce physiological effects. Other methods are also used to stimulate acu-points, such as heat or finger-pressure. The general theory of acupuncture is that proper physiological function and health depend on the circulation of nutrients, substances and energy called Qi (pronounced “chee”) through a network of “channels” or “meridians.” This network connects every organ and part of the body, providing balance, regulation and coordination of physiological processes. Pain and ill-health result when the flow of Qi through the body is disrupted or blocked by many things, including disease, pathogens, trauma/injuries and medication (side-effects), as well as lifestyle factors such as overwork, poor diet, emotions, lack of rest and stress. Stimulation of the appropriate acu-points through acupuncture treatments helps to restore sufficient, continuous and even flow of Qi and other nutrients throughout the body, thereby restoring health and balance to the body, while relieving pain and other symptoms.”

Before I discuss dry needling, I always state again that I am a believer in the role of acupuncture as part of the full medical tapestry.

However, as a Doctor of Physical Therapy in Raleigh who regularly uses dry needling to successfully treat a wide variety of orthopedic musculoskeletal problems, the philosophy and scientific methodology are different.

Not necessarily one better than the other, just different.

Dr. Pope Dry Needling Patient

Dr. Pope Dry Needles Lower Back of Patient at Chain Effect.

What Is Dry Needling?

Dry needling refers to a technique that physical therapists and other health care providers use to treat movement issues and musculoskeletal pain related to myofascial trigger points. During a dry needling session, a provider will insert thin needles near or into a patient’s myofascial trigger points. The insertion of the needles then causes a patient’s muscles to twitch or contract, which can assist with improving their range of pain and reducing pain.

How is Dry Needling Different from Acupuncture?

Instead of looking at the circulation of energy called Qi, my goal with dry needling is primarily to affect or “reset” a certain muscle and its interaction with the rest of the body.

Let’s break this down.

Every muscle in our body has an optimal length-tension relationship.

Balance in the muscle length-tension relationship allows the body to stand erect and move athletically with ease and without pain.

However, poor posture and improper lifting over time can lead to certain muscles being overused and tightened. Overused and tight muscle fibers can turn into trigger points.

At the same time, other muscles can also become underused, causing them to weaken and have poor firing ability.

Just like any learned movement, like throwing or kicking a ball, dysfunctional movements also develop muscle memory and form strong neural bonds. This means to regain proper movement, we have to re-learn how to move.

What Does Dry Needling Therapy do?

Dry needling is an incredible tool I incorporate in my therapy programs to make it possible to re-learn how to move and reduce musculoskeletal pain.

Since I am working directly in the muscle, dry needling can:

  • Release trigger points
  • Increase flexibility
  • Improve activation
  • Possibly most important: Reset the neural feedback loop

This last component is the most beneficial as it creates a window of time where long-lasting change can occur.

When combining needling with other manual techniques and therapeutic exercises and activities, I’ve seen my clients overcome long lasting problems and pain.

Our technique with the filiform needles combined with other manual work, often including trigger point release, can help alleviate most muscle pain.

Relief can include neck pain from sleeping wrong, knee pain from a sports injury, and more.

So for me, it’s a simple formula. Reset the system and then re-learn how to load it properly for long-lasting change.

Which Is More Effective Dry Needling or Acupuncture?

Before I discuss dry needling with patients who might want to try acupuncture, I always state that I am a believer in the role of acupuncture as part of the full medical tapestry. However, the philosophy and scientific methodology are different, meaning it is difficult to compare them directly and state which one is more effective.

Since dry needling targets trigger points, it will often be the more effective treatment option for treating musculoskeletal pain. If you have issues with movement, dry needling may also be your best bet, as acupuncture does not claim to assist with correcting movement patterns.

“Does Dry Needling Hurt?”

My answer is that it varies from person to person.

For most people, they don’t feel the needle itself much.

What is felt the most is the muscles’ response to the needle when a trigger point is released.

Afterward, it’s very common and expected to be sore.

The area worked on typically feels as if you worked out really hard, so for most it’s a familiar feeling.

In some cases and depending on how much needling you received, the soreness can last up to 48 hours.

Admittedly, dry needling doesn’t feel like a nice, relaxing massage, but the benefits are tremendous and long-lasting.

Schedule a Dry Needling Session at Chain Effect

If you want to schedule a dry needling session in Raleigh, North Carolina, Chain Effect is here to help. Our physical therapists regularly perform dry needling on our patients to correct movement issues and speed up the recovery time for acute injuries. When you see one of our physical therapists, you can expect them to identify the root cause of dysfunction and develop a plan that will provide long-lasting results.

Learn more about our physical therapy and dry-needling care options today. If you’re ready to try dry needling, please one of our physical therapists will be happy to work with you.

Schedule a dry needling session here.

By Dr. Taylor Pope, PT, DPT, FDNP, Co-Owner of Chain Effect

If after reading this you would like to know more, or have questions, please email me at taylor@chaineffect.us.

Often misspelled: “dry needling vs accupuncture”


Dr. Taylor Pope owner of Chain Effect and one of the Doctors of Physical Therapy at Chain Effect

Written by Taylor Pope, DPT, Chain Effect Co-Owner.

Taylor Pope has over a decade in the field and has helped thousands of clients relieve pain with dry needling, manual therapy, and movement. At Chain Effect, he now hand-selects dry needling experts to provide Raleigh with safe and effective pain relief services and transformations.