Dry Needling

What is the difference between dry needling and acupuncture?

By Melissa Lo L.Ac., M.S.O.M.

Licensed Acupuncturist

Owner of Origin Natural Care

Dry needling is a technique that is not related to Traditional Chinese acupuncture. Acupuncturists take a stand that dry needling is a form of acupuncture. This is due to the fact that dry needling is still an invasive procedure, the use of needles being inserted into the body. Dry needling is usually used to help with stimulating and breaking away at muscular knots and tension in the body. Another name for dry needling is trigger point needling, intramuscular stimulation (IMU) and bio medical acupuncture. There is usually no treatment methodology for treating with dry needling. Needles are inserted in regions of tender muscles.


Some practitioners do not believe that dry needling has any similarity with acupuncture except for the use of needles. Meaning, that because there is no theory of Eastern medicine, or Traditional Chinese Medicine Meridian basis for treatment. It is still imperative to understand that minimally educated practitioners who have and do not have knowledge of the body anatomy and needle usage can cause extreme harm. There are still medical risks with dry needling as it normally targets muscular structures that may be located close to organs. An example of this could be puncturing an organ, such as the lung. Incorrect angling, or a depth too deep may cause a pneumothorax. In extreme situations this can cause severe medical complications.


It is important to note that Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture practiced by licensed acupuncturists are based off of ancient Chinese concepts of meridian systems. This is why acupuncturists still use traditional diagnostics prior to treating patients. This includes, and is not limited to, tongue and pulse diagnosis. Acupuncture does not share any medical ground with dry needling acupuncture.


Currently the practice of dry needling is falling within the field of physical therapy. It has become more common for physical therapists to add in dry needling as one of their expertise and newest modality of treatment. However, physical therapy is not a field that historically practices the use of needles, and with minimal training can affect the health of a patient.


Below is a comparison of a Dry-Needling practitioner versus a licensed acupuncturist:


Dry Needling Practitioner

Licensed Acupuncturist

Certified physician, chiropractor, physical therapist with as little as 50 hours of training. Licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.) with an average of 2,700+ hours of master level training.
Training usually comprised of home study and or weekend seminars. Master level, on-site training at a nationally accredited school or college of acupuncture.
Minimal clinical experience in acupuncture, or little actually patient treatment prior to certification. Hundreds of hours of clinic experience and at least 250+ actual patient treatment before licensure.
Not required to complete the national certification examination to prove competency in acupuncture. Required to pass the national certification exam in acupuncture (NCCAOM) or state licensure (CA State Board of Acupuncture) to be able to practice acupuncture.
Not required to regularly complete continuing education courses. Required to do regular continuing education to maintain national certification.