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Understanding the Distinctions: Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

While dry needling and acupuncture both involve the insertion of needles into the body, they differ in their origins, techniques, theoretical foundations, and clinical applications.

Acupuncture vs dry needling

Introduction (Dry needling vs acupuncture)

In the realm of alternative therapies, two practices often mentioned are dry needling and acupuncture. While they both involve the insertion of fine needles into the body, they originate from different traditions and serve distinct purposes. This blog post aims to shed light on the dissimilarities between dry needling vs acupuncture, exploring their histories, techniques, theoretical foundations, and clinical applications. By understanding these contrasts, individuals can make informed decisions about which approach might be most suitable for their specific needs

Origins and Background

Dry Needling: Dry needling, also known as trigger point dry needling (TDN), emerged in the 1940s as an extension of Western medicine. Developed by Janet G. Travell, MD, it is primarily based on anatomical and physiological principles. The technique targets myofascial trigger points (tight bands of muscle fibers), aiming to alleviate pain and dysfunction in muscles and connective tissues.

Acupuncture: Acupuncture, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which dates back over 2,500 years. Its origins can be traced to ancient Chinese texts such as the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon (Huangdi Neijing). Acupuncture is based on the theory of energy flow or Qi (pronounced "chee") along meridians or pathways in the body. The insertion of needles at specific points on these meridians is believed to restore balance and promote healing.

Techniques and Needle Insertion

Dry Needling: Dry needling involves inserting a thin, solid filament needle directly into trigger points, taut bands, or dysfunctional tissues within muscles. The needle is usually manipulated or stimulated by manual techniques or electrical stimulation. The goal is to release tension, reduce pain, and improve muscle function

Acupuncture: Acupuncture utilizes hair-thin, metallic needles that are inserted at specific points along the meridians. The needle insertion depths vary depending on the treatment goal, but they are typically shallower than in dry needling. Acupuncturists may use various techniques like manual stimulation, gentle twisting, or even heat (moxibustion) to enhance the therapeutic effects.

Theoretical Foundations

Dry Needling: The underlying principles of dry needling are mainly grounded in Western anatomical and neurophysiological concepts. The technique aims to target trigger points, decrease muscle tension, promote tissue healing, and modulate pain by eliciting local twitch responses and neurophysiological changes in the affected tissues.

Acupuncture: Acupuncture theory is rooted in the traditional Chinese concept of Qi, Yin-Yang balance, and the flow of energy along meridians. According to TCM, disease or pain arises from an imbalance or blockage in the flow of Qi. By inserting needles at specific acupuncture points, practitioners seek to restore the harmonious flow of energy and restore health

Clinical Applications

Dry Needling: Dry needling is commonly employed by physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths and other healthcare professionals who specialize in musculoskeletal conditions. It is primarily used to manage myofascial pain syndrome, trigger points, muscle spasms, and musculoskeletal dysfunction.

Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a holistic therapy widely practiced by licensed acupuncturists. It is employed for various conditions, including but not limited to pain management, stress reduction, digestive disorders, respiratory ailments, fertility support, and psychological well-being.

Qualifications for Dry Needling and Acupuncture in the UK

Dry Needling: In the United Kingdom, dry needling is primarily performed by healthcare professionals, such as physiotherapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths. While there is currently no specific legal regulation for dry needling, practitioners are generally required to meet certain educational and professional standards set by their respective governing bodies. The qualifications and requirements may vary among professional associations and organizations.

Training Length: The length of training for dry needling can vary depending on the provider and the depth of training desired. Postgraduate courses in dry needling techniques for healthcare professionals, such as physiotherapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths, typically range from a few days to several weeks. The duration of the training may depend on the level of expertise desired and the specific techniques being taught.

Acupuncture: In the United Kingdom, acupuncturists typically complete a three- to four-year degree-level program in acupuncture. These programs cover traditional Chinese medicine theory, acupuncture techniques, diagnosis, and clinical practice. Upon completion of their studies, graduates may become members of professional bodies such as the The Association of Acupuncture Clinicians (AAC).

Practitioners of acupuncture must adhere to the regulations and guidelines established by their professional bodies. These organizations ensure that practitioners meet specific educational standards, adhere to professional codes of conduct, and maintain ongoing professional development to provide safe and effective acupuncture treatment.


While dry needling and acupuncture both involve the insertion of needles into the body, they differ in their origins, techniques, theoretical foundations, and clinical applications. Dry needling, rooted in Western medicine, focuses on trigger points and musculoskeletal issues and training courses typically last from a few days to several weeks. Acupuncture, originating from Traditional Chinese Medicine, targets meridians and aims to balance the body's energy flow and qualified practitioners in the UK normally hold a Bachelor of Science degree. By understanding these distinctions, individuals can make informed choices about which approach may align best with their healthcare goals.


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