Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture: Which Is Right for You?

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Dry needling vs acupuncture

On a surface level examination, dry needling and acupuncture may seem like nearly identical practices. Although both use thin, disposable, stainless steel needles, these treatments are not the same – and we’ll explain why.

Learning the differences between dry needling and acupuncture is the best way to understand which type of treatment is right for you. So let’s take a look at both pain therapies, their uses, and which is the best fit for your specific needs.

What Is Dry Needling?

Dry needling is a relatively modern treatment introduced in the last century. However, it has rapidly picked up in popularity, and we increasingly see patients interested in the practice.

A practitioner inserts filiform needles into the patient’s skin at “trigger points” in the muscle and tissue during dry needling treatment. These needles can be placed superficially or deeply, depending on the type of pain being treated.

These needles don’t inject fluid, thus explaining the term “dry” in the treatment’s name.

By positioning the needle at a knotted spot in a muscle or a trigger point, the practitioner can release some of the muscle’s contraction and decrease spasms, and thus, alleviate pain. Sometimes, the needles are left in the skin for only a few seconds. However, in scenarios where the muscle pain or spasm is more severe, they might not be taken out until after 10 to 15 minutes.

When Is Dry Needling Commonly Used?

Athlete sports injury

Dry needling is a popular treatment choice amongst athletes and sports injury therapists but can be effective for anyone suffering from chronic muscle pain. Typically, dry needling patients have a very specific pain point or injury they need to target.

We have found dry needle therapy to be beneficial for a range of conditions that involve pain and dysfunction in the musculoskeletal system. These include:

  • Shin splints
  • Carpal tunnel
  • Tendonitis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Tennis elbow
  • Knee pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Back pain

The Benefits of Dry Needling

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Dry needling isn’t just effective – it’s relatively fast-acting. Patients will begin to note improvement in their symptoms within one to three days of treatment.

Furthermore, there are very minimal risks associated with dry needling. The needles are placed precisely and carefully to minimize discomfort. As long as a trained therapist or practitioner performs the treatment, you should not experience any serious risks or complications.

Potential Dry Needling Side Effects

Although dry needling is considered very safe, you still may experience slight side effects during the initial 24 to 48 hours after treatment. These could include:

  • A slight increase in pain in response to the stimulus.
  • Some bruising in targeted areas.
  • Minimal bleeding at the needles’ entry points.
  • Temporary soreness.

These symptoms should all subside relatively quickly. To speed up your recovery, you can gently stretch or massage the pained areas.

What is Acupuncture?

Now it’s time to talk about a practice that has been used for centuries in many Asian countries.

Medical acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles into the skin at strategic points on the body, much like dry needling. However, acupuncture differs from dry needling in that it focuses on needle placement along meridians, or pathways, in your body rather than trigger points or knotted muscles.  Orthopedic acupuncture can target various tissues including nerves, tendons, and joint spaces

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, acupuncture helps balance the energy flow, or life force (chi), within the body. It is commonly used for internal medicine, chronic conditions, and mental health issues. The Chinese approach to acupuncture is best suited for systemic illness, or injuries affecting multiple types of tissues.

The Benefits of Acupuncture

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Many practitioners and patients believe that by stimulating meridians in the body, acupuncture “boosts the body’s natural painkillers.” Recent research shows that acupuncture can be as effective at downregulating pain as opioid medications, without the side effects.

Unlike dry needling, acupuncture focuses more on overall, whole-body healing rather than specific muscle targeting.

Although the first treatment may take up to an hour to complete, acupuncture is still a relatively quick and easy pain management practice. Additionally, most patients report feeling energized and relaxed after their treatment.

When Is Acupuncture Commonly Used?

Neck pain

Acupuncture can treat many types of pain. Typically, patients turn to the ancient practice to relieve discomfort from:

  • Anesthesia-induced nausea/vomiting
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Dental pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Myofascial pain
  • Headaches (and migraines)
  • Labor pain
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Lower back pain
  • Neck pain

Another key difference between dry needling and acupuncture is the research into its uses and effectiveness. Although many claims that dry needling effectively relieves pain, acupuncture is far more supported by research and official health organizations.

Johns Hopkins Medicine shares, “Studies have shown that acupuncture is effective for a variety of conditions.” The treatment is often recommended by doctors, especially to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Potential Side Effects of Acupuncture

In general, acupuncture is viewed as a low-risk treatment method – as long as a licensed and experienced acupuncturist performs the practice.

As with dry needling, acupuncture patients may experience some soreness at the needles’ injection points. Patients may also feel fatigued, but the feeling generally passes in 15-30 minutes.

Avoiding alcohol and caffeine (before and after treatment) can help you feel more relaxed and comfortable during the procedure and in recovery. Light exercise can also minimize soreness and help you reap the full benefits of treatment.

So… Which One Is Right for You?

Hopefully, this post has helped you understand a little more about the differences between dry needling and acupuncture.

Dry needling is an up-and-coming treatment option that many athletes have embraced, but acupuncture is a therapy that’s been around for centuries. The first is popular for targeting specific knotted or pained muscles, while the latter focuses on promoting a healthy flow of “healing” energy through the body.

Both have reputations for effectively treating certain pains – you just need to find the one that works best for you.

Contact Solis to Learn More

If you’re still trying to decide which treatment option is the best for your injury or pain, reach out to our team at Solis. We’re well-versed in both practices and can guide you toward the best solution for your specific requirements and preferences.

To schedule your initial consultation, send us an email or give us a call. We’re here to help you start living a happier, healthier life today.


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Lishanna Emmert, DAOM, L.Ac

Lishanna Emmert, DAOM, L.Ac

Dr. Emmert has been treating chronic pain for 15 years. After obtaining her Master’s in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, she went on to do a Doctoral Program through the Henan University In China, then a second Doctoral program in San Jose, CA. Lishanna has done certification programs in functional nutrition, whole food supplements for pain and sports injury, orthopedic acupuncture, and functional herbal medicine.