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Dry Needling or Acupuncture: Which Treatment Is Right for You?

Does the word “needle” make you want to run for the hills? You aren’t alone.

Whether it be a blood draw or shots and immunizations, most experiences that require the use of sharp metal sticks aren’t always pleasant ones. And although needles are very important medical tools, they sort of have a bad rap.

If you fear needles, then you probably haven’t eagerly sought out acupuncture or dry needling either. But it might be worth giving one of these methods a try — especially if you’re dealing with chronic pain or muscle tension. 

Both acupuncture and dry needling use thin, stainless-steel, filiform needles – much thinner than the ones coming at you in a syringe.

One practice has been around for thousands of years, while the other practice has become more commonplace over the last couple of decades. In both practices, needles are inserted into strategic points of the body to provide pain relief from the inside out.

If you’re dealing with pain, discomfort, or other issues like anxiety, it may be worth giving dry needling or acupuncture a try.   

Read on to understand exactly what the differences are and what each practice can treat. 

What is acupuncture?

We first start with the oldest practice, acupuncture. 

A centuries-old practice in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture is practiced by tens of thousands of licensed acupuncturists worldwide. Over the last couple of decades, it has been well-established in the U.S., including formal training programs and licensing boards, and is even covered by some insurances.

The philosophy behind this practice is based on Qi (pronounced chee) or energy flow. 

“It’s believed that energy flows through the body in channels called meridians,” said Sarah Chapman, DPT, an orthopedic clinical specialist at Banner Health in Gilbert, Arizona. “When Qi isn’t flowing freely in the body, it can cause illness.”

Acupuncture is performed with the use of solid monofilament (very fine/thread-like) needles that are inserted along the body’s meridian lines to allow energy to flow again and become balanced. 

What are the benefits?

“Acupuncture is used for a variety of reasons, both physical and mental,” Chapman said. “It can be used to treat conditions, such as stomach pain, musculoskeletal pain, internal organ problems, and even mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.”

Other problems it’s used to treat include:

What are the risks?

As with any therapeutic treatment, acupuncture does have a few risks and side effects. 

  • The use of non-sterile needles can lead to infection or disease. To significantly reduce this risk, work with a licensed acupuncturist.
  • There is an increased risk of complications if you have a bleeding disorder, are taking blood thinners, are pregnant or use a pacemaker. Talk to your health care provider first before receiving acupuncture.
  • Side effects may include bruising, bleeding and a mild, achy feeling at the point where the needle is inserted.

What is dry needling?

Dry needling is a much newer practice that is growing in popularity in the U.S. as a way of addressing muscular pain.  

It’s most often performed by physical and sports injury therapists but is regulated by each state. Most states allow physical therapists (PTs) to perform dry needling treatment, however, there are a few states that do not allow it. Also, some states require more training hours than others and approval by a regulatory board.

“In Arizona, for example, you have to take at least a three-day course and provide proof of completion to the state regulatory board,” Chapman said. “The board reviews it, and once approved, you can perform dry needling.”

Dry needling also uses solid monofilament (think, paper-thin) needles that are inserted into the body, but they are placed at different points in the body than acupuncture needles. 

“The points that the needles are placed are based on anatomy, such as muscle, nerves and joints, to help increase blood flow and oxygen and relieve muscle pain, spasms or tension,” Chapman said. “Since they don’t inject a liquid, they are known as ‘dry.’”

The goal is to help speed up recovery and allow your body to focus on healing a specific trouble spot or area.

What are the benefits?

If you deal with constant knots in your shoulders and back, then dry needling may be for you. 

“Dry needling can be used to treat a variety of things, from muscle trigger points to inflammation due to tendinitis or bursitis,” Chapman said. “It’s used often to treat sports injuries, neck and lower back pain, fibromyalgia, or other neuromuscular conditions.”

Dry needling can also help you during physical therapy. It helps relax muscles and allows you to do exercises with less pain and recover more quickly. “Dry needling without the therapy exercises isn’t as effective as when it is done along with appropriate exercises,” Chapman said. 

What are the risks?

As with any treatment, dry needling comes with a few rare, but mild side effects. 

  • The most common side effects may include mild bleeding, bruising and temporary soreness (for about 24-48 hours). When needling around the lung area, there is a small risk of pneumothorax (collapsed lung).
  • Dry needling is not recommended for pregnant people, because there is a small risk it can start early labor.
  • It’s also not recommended if you have a weakened immune system, active cancer, active infection or impaired healing as your body may not be able to produce the same healing response to the needles. Talk to your provider if they think you could receive help from dry needling.
  • If you’re on blood thinners, dry needling may not be for you. It’s best to discuss this with your provider and physical therapist first as some blood thinners can increase your risk of bruising.

“Since dry needling is a relatively newer treatment, it isn’t covered by insurance and it may be more difficult to find a PT who does dry needling as it is regulated differently in every state and requires additional training and education,” Chapman said.

Which treatment is right for me?

If you can get past the needle aspect, you may wonder which treatment you should pursue. Answering that question will depend on a range of factors, including your condition and personal preference.

For instance, if you’re looking for relief from muscle pain and tightness, then dry needling may be the right choice for you. On the other hand, if you’re hoping for relief from a mental or physical condition like anxiety, nausea or allergies, then acupuncture may be the right answer.

Both acupuncture and dry needling have their own set of benefits and risks. Whichever method you choose to pursue, make sure you talk to your health care provider first to make sure it’s OK to give it a go.

Interested in dry needling or acupuncture and want to learn more?

Schedule an appointment with a physical therapist.

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