The dry needling vs. acupuncture debate has been in the spotlight over the past several years. In fact, earlier this year, the Acupuncture Association of Colorado (AAC) sued the Colorado Physical Therapy Board in Denver District Court, claiming that the term “dry needling” was “merely a euphemism” for the ancient Chinese technique of acupuncture. In light of this litigation (and similar cases across the country), many people are confused as to what the differences are between the two techniques.
Because of the influx of questions we receive about this, we wanted to share the facts and help educate people so that patients could make an informed decision regarding their medical care.
Even though we practice acupuncture & Oriental Medicine, our goal is not to persuade any of our patients to choose acupuncture over dry needling. We refer our patients to physical therapists (along with various other medical professionals) as needed and have the utmost respect for these practitioners. We simply want to educate.
What is the Difference Between Dry Needling and Acupuncture?
*A brief note: When we mention acupuncture, we would like to distinguish that we are not talking about the practice of acupuncture as a whole, but as one of the numerous needling techniques that licensed acupuncturists utilize in treatments.
When it comes to the actual needling technique of both acupuncture and dry needling, there is no difference. The difference between the two modalities lies within the methodology.
Focused on the Eastern belief of balancing the body’s energy source (qi), acupuncture is the practice of inserting tiny needles into specific points along the body’s pathways (meridians) in order to restore homeostasis.
Focused on a Western understanding of human physiology, dry needling is the practice of inserting tiny needles into “tender bands of muscle within larger muscles” (trigger points) in order to alleviate pain. (However, acupuncture is also used frequently to alleviate pain.)
To fully understand dry needling, we need to have a sense of how the practice started:
When a PT, or any other professional, is performing “dry needling,” this is in stark contrast to “wet needling.” Travell and Simons, in their 1981 book, Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction – the Trigger Point Manual, discussed (among other methods to deactivate a trigger point) hypodermic needle injection of a variety of chemicals. This discussion included the precise method of injection of the agent into the trigger point. The book has hundreds of illustrations of hypodermic needle injection into the trigger points.
It was discovered that virtually all substances injected via the hypodermic needle had a positive effect, including simple saline solution. They also wondered what would happen if nothing were injected and just the hypodermic needle were introduced, creating a mechanical effect to deactivate the trigger points. It was discovered that it worked in the same fashion and that injection of a chemical, even though still popular with many practitioners, was not necessary. However, the analgesic effect of the chemical did provide an additional effect in harmony with the presence of the needle itself. (Source)
While the more modern practice of dry needling might seem to have a better understanding of human physiology, the trigger points PTs use are the same points found along the body’s meridians acupuncturists use. Therefore, there are no actual differences between dry needling and acupuncture treatments—only the understanding of why it works.
Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture—Safety Concerns
While acupuncture and dry needling are, in practice, the same needling technique, the training is not, which is the main argument in the AAC’s legal argument.
In the state of Colorado, acupuncturists are required to have 1,905 hours of classes and training in order to be licensed. Dry needling, on the other hand, only requires 46 hours of training. With such a stark difference in requirements, people are left to wonder: Is dry needling safe?
When in the hands of a licensed professional, acupuncture risks are extremely low and has been proven effective in many studies. Alternatively, there have been several life-threatening injuries sustained from dry needling in recent years. One acupuncturist even went through a dry needling certification course in order to understand the practice and recounted her experience.
Overall, the most important thing to understand when it comes to the dry needling vs. acupuncture debate is that they utilize the same technique.
As a therapeutic health spa, our job is to best serve our patients, using our philosophy of “healing from the inside out.” In addition to acupuncture, we aid patients with various other treatment options (herbs, nutrition, massage therapy, etc.) with a focus on the patient’s unique condition.
Interested in acupuncture? Read more about our services here.