Dry needling vs. acupuncture: What the research says
Practitioners of dry needling attempt to release tension from knots and pressure points in muscles. Acupuncturists insert needles to release endorphins and affect the nervous system. Traditionally, acupuncture was used to align a person's energy, or chi.
While researchers have studied acupuncture as a complementary treatment for many conditions, dry needling is a newer practice, and the evidence is less comprehensive. Also, strict guidelines are in place for acupuncturists, but dry needling is not regulated.
In this article, learn more about the differences between these practices and what their benefits may be.
Dry needling vs. acupuncture
Practitioners use dry needling to relieve muscle pain and cramping.
These practices share some similarities, and both claim to provide therapeutic relief from pain. However, they involve different methods and should not be confused.
People have used acupuncture for centuries, and it is now well regulated. Dry needling has been developed more recently, and there are no official guidelines.
Acupuncture can be used for a variety of medical conditions. The primary philosophy is that a body can be healed when chi, or healing energy, is released.
Dry needling is designed to relieve tightness and pain in muscles. Practitioners believe that inserting a needle directly into a knot or pressure point will release tension in the surrounding muscle.
What is dry needling?
The primary aim is to relieve muscle pain and cramping, but it may also help to improve a person's flexibility.
A practitioner inserts short, thin, stainless steel filiform needles into pressure points. Also called trigger points, these are tight areas or knots in the muscles. The needles contain no liquid, and nothing is injected.
Sports therapists and other physical therapists typically perform dry needling. Due to a lack of regulation and guidelines, a person can perform dry needling with minimal training and no license.
It is often very difficult to tell whether a practitioner has been trained, has adequate experience, or is performing the procedure correctly.
The most common practice is to leave a filiform needle in the muscle for 10–30 minutes. However, there are two less common types of dry needling:
- The in and out technique, during which a practitioner inserts a filiform needle into a trigger point and removes it right away. Results of a 2014 review suggest that this form of dry needling provides no benefits.
- The non-trigger points technique, during which a practitioner inserts needles into surrounding muscle, instead of a knot or pressure point.
Scientific studies on dry needling are limited, though the body of research is growing. So far, some research has been positive. A study published in 2013 showed that dry needling was more effective than a placebo treatment.
However, results of research in which no placebo was used have been less promising. In a study from 2012, dry needling was found to be less effective than platelet-rich plasma injections at treating rotator cuff injuries.
Authors of a 2017 study concluded that stretching was just as effective as dry needling in improving flexibility.
Dry needling may be more effective than receiving no treatment, but more conventional and cost-effective methods, such as stretching and massage therapy, may be better at relieving muscle pain.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is used to relieve stress, pain, and discomfort.
Acupuncture is an ancient technique developed in China.
Proponents claim that it can relieve stress, pain, and discomfort by opening up a person's energy flow, or chi.
Medical acupuncture involves using long, thin needles to stimulate nerves in the muscles and under the skin.
This can result in the production of endorphins, which may relieve some symptoms.
Acupuncture is used to alleviate a wide range of symptoms, commonly including:
- aches and pains in muscles
- menstrual cramping
- headaches and migraines
- labor-related pain
- knee pain
To practice acupuncture, a person needs to be licensed and undergo extensive training. A master acupuncture therapist will undergo 3 or more years of training. They will learn to identify symptoms, diagnose conditions, and use correct techniques with needles.
A senior member of a national board will supervise new practitioners. Before receiving a license, a new practitioner must pass examinations from the national board, and they must continue to pass examinations each year after receiving a license.
A wide body of research supports the use of acupuncture to treat many medical conditions, including migraines, depression, and arthritis.
More research is needed to determine whether acupuncture can help to treat arthritis, but some people find that it can reduce associated pain.
Results of a 2018 review show that acupuncture may reduce the severity of depression in some people when used alongside traditional treatments.
Anyone interesting in trying acupuncture should speak with a doctor about finding a registered practitioner.
Both needling practices can lead to temporary soreness and bruising around the insertion area.
Dry needling is usually considered safe if the practitioner uses sterile needles. Otherwise, a person is at risk of contracting blood-borne pathogens.
Further risks associated with dry needling are mild and relatively common. They include:
- temporary soreness at insertion sites
- bleeding at the sites
- bruising at or around the sites
People who receive acupuncture rarely experience side effects. When they occur, they often include bleeding, bruising, and mild pain.
Both dry needling and acupuncture may help to relieve muscle aches, pains, and tightness.
Acupuncture is a well-regulated procedure. Needles are inserted at strategic points to stimulate the flow of energy throughout the body. While some evidence is inconclusive, acupuncture is widely recognized as helpful in treating certain ailments.
Dry needling was developed much more recently. With no formal regulations in place, a person has a much higher risk of experiencing side effects. There has been little research, but some people find that this practice reduces pain.
Before trying dry needling or acupuncture, consult a doctor and research available practitioners.