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Dry needling vs acupuncture - what’s the difference?

Dry needling vs acupuncture - what’s the difference?

We get many questions about these treatments and what the difference is between them, what do they actually do, and what is the best option for treating different injuries and conditions. This article will break down the difference between acupuncture and dry needling to help you make an informed choice about your treatment options.

Holly McIntosh ·
~3 minute read

What is dry needling?

Dry needling uses the same needles used in acupuncture treatment, but with a different technique. Unlike acupuncture which works on acupressure points or meridians, dry needling works on trigger points or “knots” in our muscles.

By stimulating a trigger point, this causes a local twitch response which leads to relaxation of the muscle, reduced pain and improved circulation to the affected area. By releasing trigger points this also allows the muscle being treated to work more effectively. So dry needling is not only used for pain management but can be used to improve muscle function as well.

It is therefore useful in any condition where there is muscle pain, tightness or dysfunction involved - which is the case in most physical injuries!

How is this different to acupuncture?

Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which relates to the flow of energy through the body. It is therefore a more holistic, whole body treatment compared to the more targeted, local and scientific approach of dry needling.

Acupuncture uses the same needles but rather than inserting them into a site of muscle tension, these are placed along the lines of the body’s meridians, or energy pathways. In acupuncture, there will often be multiple needles used at once, and left in for a longer duration, compared to dry needling where one needle will be used for a much shorter length of time.

Because the TCM approach targets the body’s energy pathways, it is known to help treat a wide range of conditions, from stress to respiratory disorders, but can also be used for the management of pain or injury.

What does it feel like?

Because dry needling is targeting local trigger points which are sensitive to touch, this form of treatment can feel like a sudden ache as well as a noticeable twitch response in the muscle. This sensation does not last long as the needle is only left in for a short time, however there may be some post-treatment soreness which can last up to one day.

Acupuncture aims to create a ‘chi’ sensation which is a more mild, dull ache at the point of insertion. The needles are left in for longer and may be stimulated multiple times to keep up this ‘chi’ sensation. Acupuncture treatment can also result in post-treatment soreness lasting one to two days.

Takeaway points

The main similarity between dry needling and acupuncture is the use of the same fine filament needles. Apart from this, the technique, the theory and the desired outcomes are all quite different. 

Acupuncture may be used as a whole body treatment, whereas dry needling is used more locally to treat trigger points in muscles, which is a big part of physiotherapy treatment and therefore one of the key services we offer at Four.

If you are interested or think dry needling may be beneficial for you, you can book online with one of our experienced physiotherapists, here in Christchurch, who will be able to assess whether this treatment is appropriate for you and discuss this in more detail at your first appointment.