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The Difference Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling

First, I want to express that Dry Needling and Acupuncture are NOT the same thing. I have patients come into my office saying they are getting dry needling done and the therapist says it is the same as acupuncture. That is completely inaccurate, and it is offensive to acupuncturists. 

I want to start with the education first. Dry Needling education is only a 6-12-week course. Acupuncture is a 4-year degree or a 300 hour (3 year) course by physicians.

Let me explain the difference between the two techniques.


Dry Needling is designed to break up muscle fibers that have become twisted or spasmed inside itself. To explain how this works, I first need to explain how a muscle fiber looks. A muscle is made of muscle fibers. Sometimes I visualize a strand of yarn. If you ever look at yarn it has other threads that are intertwined together to make that one piece of yarn. Those threads are muscle fibers. Your muscle is made of multiple muscle fibers (looks like a Twizzler). Now sometimes one of those threads is not lined up properly and bunches up. If you have ever sewn, you know what I am talking about. So typically, we would take a needle and pick in the middle of the yarn to get that one thread to straighten out. This is what dry needling is like. They take a needle and they jab in that muscle belly several times to help force that muscle fiber to straighten out. This is a very painful process because of the multiple times they have to insert and move the needle around to manipulate that muscle fiber. If a therapist or physician just inserts the needles and walks away, THIS IS NOT DRY NEEDLING! They are trying to either practice acupuncture without a certification or they don’t know what they are doing. 

I also explain to patients that dry needling is like tenderizing a steak. If you have ever tried to soften your steak you may take a fork and poke it several times to loosen up the strands of fiber in the steak meat. This is the same concept with dry needling. Therefore, that is why it should be manipulated and inserted several times. 


Acupuncture is a completely different philosophy and technique. We are not trying to loosen up muscle fibers but change the energy in the body to fix itself.  Only ¼ of the head of the needle goes into the skin, and it is a very thin gauge needle. Most patients don’t even feel us insert it in the body. Our needles will stay in the body for 15 minutes up to an hour depending on treatment.  Acupuncture treats a variety of conditions from: Muscle, nerve, insomnia, infertility, headaches, hormone balancing, detoxing. Typically, with Acupuncture we are working on the energy flow of the body to help feed systems that need more energy and relieve overstimulated systems. With acupuncture, we are not working on one area but the whole body. Sometimes an acupuncturist will suggest supplementation, diet, or herbs to help assist the body in treatment.  With treating the whole body, we can also ease other signs and symptoms that may have not been a primary concern of the patient. 

I personally like to remind my patients that acupuncture is designed to calm the body and allow it to rest so it can fix itself. Think of it like this: if you have a cold, do you really want to get up and run a marathon or do you want to stay in bed and sleep? Acupuncture should be a relaxing experience and we always ask our patients to slow their bodies and mind down 10 minutes after treatment. It is not an instant fix, but a mind and body experience. We want the mind to calm and sync with the body to help it do its job of repairing what has been damaged. This is why some people report back that they were tired after treatment, or that they slept for a very long time that night. Good! We want that repair time.

With Acupuncture, needles may be placed throughout the body and not just in the area of complaint. Again, we are working on Meridian energy that begins in the tip of the toes and fingers and runs throughout the body.

Acupuncture has been used for centuries by many cultures and Dry Needling was developed in 1979 by a Czech physician. They are two different philosophies and techniques for treatment. Many studies have been published and books written about acupuncture treatments. Current studies are being developed concerning Dry Needling and its effectiveness in certain conditions. Dry needling is effective for certain conditions, but not all; this is important to remember.  

Personally, for me, I can do dry needling. Yet I prefer the well roundedness of acupuncture. Trigger points and muscle spasms happen because of chemical imbalances, and with acupuncture we can determine these imbalances and work toward fixing them. That is our main goal.

If you are interested in more information about acupuncture, you can visit our website or or listen to our Podcast: The Common Sense Doctor.

Special guest, Dr. Justin Fogo, a chiropractor and acupuncturist in Chelsea, AL, discusses with me on Dry Needling vs Acupuncture. Listen to our podcast by clicking the image below: