To a casual observer, trigger point dry needling and acupuncture treatments would appear virtually identical: Both involve strategically inserting five to 20 needles into the patient’s skin. But while dry needling and acupuncture do share similar methods, they have vastly different origins, work on entirely different principles, and are used to treat different conditions. Let’s get right to the point and explain those differences!


The Origin of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a relatively new phenomenon in the Western world, although it likely predates recorded history. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which was written around 100 BC, is the first document that formally describes acupuncture. The Chinese may not have invented acupuncture, however, as a mummy recovered in the Ötztal Alps shows compelling evidence that the procedure was already being performed in Italy over 5,000 years ago.


How Does Acupuncture Work?

Modern acupuncture revolves around the presumption that qi exists. In traditional Chinese culture, qi is a vital force that is found in every living thing. Good health follows when qi flows unimpeded throughout the body; bad health results when one or more of the 14 energy pathways becomes obstructed and hinders qi’s free movement. The acupuncturist attempts to reopen the pathways by methodically inserting needles into key points on the body.


Does Acupuncture Work?

Its reliance on an unquantifiable energy source has earned acupuncture its fair share of skepticism. Many doctors attribute any of acupuncture’s supposed benefits to the placebo effect. Essentially, those doctors claim acupuncture only makes people feel better because they expect to feel better and behave accordingly.

There is evidence that acupuncture stimulates the natural release of endorphins – peptides associated with relief from pain, depression and anxiety. Acupuncture has also been shown to significantly reduce patients’ lower back pain and chronic neck pain. Even if qi doesn’t exist, there is solid evidence that the method for restoring its flow does yield actual health benefits.


The Origin of Dry Needling

Dry needling was developed far more recently. The term was introduced in the 1983 edition of Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, and described a procedure for intramuscular stimulation via careful insertion of narrow needles through the skin. That said, the scientific study of needle insertion as therapy likely began with Czechoslovakian neurologist Karel Lewit’s medical research.


How Does Dry Needling Work?

Dry needling targets trigger points: discrete, focal and hyperirritable loci situated within taut bands of skeletal muscle tissue. In simpler terms, trigger points are painfully compressed areas of muscle. The objective of dry needling is to stimulate those muscle knots’ twitch response. Once the knots loosen, the patient’s pain and accompanying motor dysfunction should theoretically both subside.


Does Dry Needling Work?

Dry needling is a popular treatment for soreness, stiffness, pain and inflexibility for a simple reason: patients realize actual results. Unlike acupuncture, several scientific studies demonstrate that dry needling produces significantly greater relief than the placebo effect could account for on its own.

Its efficacy at treating muscle, ligament and tendon pain makes dry needling suitable for a broad range of conditions such as tendonitis, sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, tension headaches, post-surgical pain, and even TMJ.


More Differences Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling

Acupuncture and dry needling both rely on solid-point needles – not hypodermic ones, as neither practice involves administering drugs. The methodologies can also cause bruising, soreness and slight discomfort as side effects. Aside from those similarities, the two disciplines are quite different.

  • Qualifications Acupuncturists practicing in the United States must have attended an accredited acupuncture or Chinese medicine program and obtained a master’s degree. The qualifications a physical therapist must meet in order to practice dry needling vary by state. For example, in South Dakota a licensed physical therapist must have formally studied surface anatomy before they can legally administer dry needling.
  • Duration – Needle insertion during dry needling may be extremely quick, and typically does not exceed 15 minutes. Insertion during acupuncture typically lasts much longer at 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Applications – Acupuncture is used to treat an enormous number of seemingly unrelated conditions, including hepatitis, depression, sinusitis, infertility, Parkinson’s disease, impotence, and even drug addiction. Dry needling’s scope is far more limited in comparison, as it focuses solely on correcting issues stemming from muscular pain, muscular stiffness, and other musculoskeletal conditions.
  • Qi – Dry needling practitioners neither presume the existence of nor purport to impact a hypothetical source of energy. Whereas acupuncture’s popularity is bolstered by thousands of years of tradition, dry needling’s widespread popularity is only attributable to its results.


We do not disparage acupuncture. The great majority of its practitioners are respectable and highly educated, and they have devoted their careers to helping people. But as a science-driven clinic, Acucare Physical Therapy has chosen to practice dry needling: a technique which demonstrably stimulates the body’s ability to self-heal, and which has already helped many of our own patients live free from pain.

If you would like to learn more about how dry needling can help you, then we welcome you to schedule a consultation at our clinic in Sioux Falls, SD today!