Acupuncture vs Dry Needling? What's the deal?

You may be asking yourself, “ what the heck is dry needling?” 

Or, you may be in the other camp that found their way to this post specifically searching dry needling in Newport Beach or Orange County.  

Very simply put, dry needling is a treatment for myofascial dysfunction and/or pain utilizing sterile, single use, stainless steel needles. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Acupuncture also employs the same tool to get the job done. Acupuncture is also widely used to treat myofascial conditions that cause acute and chronic pain.

So what’s the difference? 

That is a loaded question if there ever was one! Physical therapists or other health care professionals who provide dry needling will profess that dry needling and acupuncture could not be more different. Acupuncturists will often express the same sentiment.

They’re both right. Acupuncture and dry needling are very different from one another as far as their intent, training, lifetime and theory. However they are extremely similar when you consider the tool, the method of insertion in some cases, treatment outcomes and patient satisfaction.   

Let’s break down the basics and highlight some key features for each. 

First, Acupuncture. 

Acupuncture has been in practice for thousands of years. Diagnosis and treatment are based in traditional forms of medicine that evaluate the function and vitality of organ systems and how those systems may be affecting your overall health. Qi is one of the foundational principles of Acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. Qi describes the force that sustains us, animates as and is a functional measure of one’s health and wellbeing. Qi is what distinguishes the living from the non-living. 

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Acupuncture points (often where needles are placed for treatment) reside along meridians. Meridians are invisible highways through which Qi travels. Each meridian has a parent organ to which it belongs. These highways function independently and interdependently with others. Disruption of the movement of Qi of a meridian affects not only that meridian and it’s corresponding organ, but others as well. 

These are some of the features of acupuncture that are drastically different than dry needling. 

Dry needling is relatively new on the scene and relies on orthopedic, neurological and palpatory findings to determine the presence of myofascial pain and/or trigger points. There is no Qi and  meridians are not held responsible for a patient’s symptoms. 

Educational requirements vary by state. In California an acupuncturist must hold a Master’s degree from an accredited university. In other states, dry needling is taught in physical therapy programs or may be learned from a variety of continuing education seminars that are made available to health practitioners such as athletic trainers, massage therapists, physical therapists and chiropractors. 

So here is how they are the same (or at least similar); 

Traditional acupuncture employs tender points where trigger points may reside. In TCM the theory is that these points may be where blood and qi have become stagnant and cause pain.  These points are referred to as “Ashi” points rather than “trigger points”. These tender points may be needled superficially, deep, kept stationary and retained for 20+ minutes, pistoned in and out and with or without electrical stimulation…..much like dry needling.  There is sometimes an involutary twitch in the muscle being needed….much like in dry needling. 

So which do you need? Acupuncture or Dry Needling?

This may just come down to your preference. Both treatment modalities can be safe, extremely effective methods for treating myofascial dysfunction and pain. 

If you are in California and you are looking for dry needling, you will have to find a provider who holds a masters degree in acupuncture or a medical physician who performs these treatments. Many acupuncturists prefer to practice acupuncture solely based on traditional methods - and that is great! But others will explore using treatment based on trigger point needling rather than traditional methods - or use a combination of both!

In our Newport Beach office, Dr. Pierce uses all methods and chooses which is best for each patient on a case by case basis. To find out if acupuncture, dry needling or a combination of the two principles is right for you, schedule an appointment! 

What is Dry Needling and what is the difference between Dry Needling and Acupuncture? 




Dry Needling is a treatment technique where thin filiform needles are inserted through the skin into pathological areas of the muscle known as "trigger points" for the purpose of relieving myofascial pain and muscle spasm. These are the same needles used in traditional acupuncture therapy, they are solid rather than hollow, and no medication is injected.

Dry needling is used in conjunction with other manual therapy techniques and therapeutic exercise.

When performing dry needling, there may be a "twitch response" where the specific band of muscle involuntarily contracts in response to insertion of the needle.  Beneficial effects can occur without elicitation of the twitch response.  Sometimes electrotherapy is also applied with the trigger point needling technique, this is referred to as electroacupuncture. If electroacupuncture is considered appropriate, small clips are attached to specific needling locations and a mild electrical current is applied. Electrical muscle stimulation aids in stimulating blood flow, reducing pain and relieving muscular spasm. 

In the State of California, the only providers who can legally perform these types of needling techniques are licensed acupuncturists and medical doctors. A licensed acupuncturist's education and training in needling techniques requires a Master's degree obtained after 3 years of education and training. 

Compared to Dry Needling, Acupuncture, when applied as a form of traditional Chinese medicine, uses acupuncture points on the surface of the body that are located along "meridians" that correspond with the internal organs and the energies associated with those organs. Traditional acupuncture techniques aim to relieve congestion of energy and blood, thereby restoring circulation and reducing symptoms associated with said qi (energy) stagnation.