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What is the difference between dry needling and acupuncture?

This is a question that comes up all the time in the clinic. Whilst dry needling and acupuncture seem to be the same thing, they are very different.

In fact the only thing they really have in common is that they use the same type of needles. You see in acupuncture and dry needling we use acupuncture needles.

These needles are really thin - 0.25mm (1/4 of a millimetre), so they are nothing like hypodermic needles and that is why you can’t really feel them when they go in. A human hair is anywhere from 0.08 - 0.12mm thick, so these needles are around the thickness of 2-3 hairs.

What separates Dry Needling and Acupuncture is the approach and philosophy.

Acupuncture is based in traditional Chinese medicine (T.C.M). This is a major form of medicine in China and is very different to Western style medicine. TCM uses a system of meridians in the body, which are like energy lines that run throughout the whole body. The idea is that if there is a blockage along one of those lines then it could be causing a dysfunction in the body. Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions and not just musculoskeletal injuries. The needles generally aren’t inserted all that far into the body, generally just into the skin. Usually you won’t feel very much. Sometimes you can feel a sensation elsewhere in your body. Acupuncture can also be considered quite relaxing.

Dry needling on the other hand is a western approach based on anatomy and physiology, involving the needles being inserted into the trigger point in the muscle. The trigger point is a point in the muscle that is defined as a small tender nodule within a taut band of tissue. Usually this is what most people would call a knot. The needle is inserted into this point and we aim to get a twitch or contraction from the muscle. This can help the muscle tissue to let go and reduce the tension. It also helps to bring blood flow to the area to help your own body heal the injury. Dry needling is definitely more painful than acupuncture as it is actually going into your muscle tissue. Most people explain the sensation as “weird” more so that painful. I find that it can be a bit of a surprise as you usually don’t feel very much and then suddenly, when the trigger point is stimulated, you will feel the muscle twitch. I always say that it won’t be as painful as my elbows digging into you.

What is the history of Dry Needling?

Dry needling has its origin in Acupuncture, where needles have been used to move the flow of energy (or chi) in the body for thousands of years mainly in China. In the west it was not until 1938 that Professor John Kellgren of Manchester university first adapted modern neurophysiology concepts to the ancient technique, observing that by applying sustained pressure on muscles he could identify exquisite tender points and reproduce the patients pain, and ease them by injecting an analgesic (using “wet needles”). As other drugs were trialled over the years it became clear that pain relief was in fact dependent on the stimulation of the needle itself, and not on the substance administered.


One of the first Doctors to employ Dry Needling for pain relief was Dr Karel Lewit of Czechoslovakia in 1979. He reported favourable results on the use of Dry Needles i.e. stimulating trigger points with acupuncture needles in patients with musculoskeletal pain. The use of acupuncture needles is a refinement of the earlier methods which used hypodermic needles. This significantly reduces the risk of haematoma and bruising associated with hollow needles.


Janet Travell (1901 –1997) an American Physician contributed greatly to todays understanding of the type of muscle pain Kellgren and others had investigated. As it is the neural hyperactivity associated with the tender points in both muscle and fascia that triggers off referred pain. Janet Travell called the exquisite tender points “Trigger points”. She also introduced the term Myofascial trigger point (MTrP) (Travell and Simon’s 1999).

Why is it called dry needling?

It is called dry needling as there is no injection so the needle is dry. Sports doctors and some acupuncturists use injections into trigger points, acupuncture points and inflamed tissue and this could technically be called “wet needling”. No one actually uses the term wet needling though, you would generally just say and injection. The term dry needling was used to differentiate the technique from injections.

Is it safe?

Dry needling is a very safe form of treatment. In qualified and experienced hands, with a solid understanding of anatomy you have no need to worry. If your practitioner is compassionate they will ensure that if you are feeling really uncomfortable that the needles will be removed immediately. In a rare number of cases people with a needle phobia may feel nauseated or feel light headed so in this case it’s best not to use dry needling.

What can Dry Needling help?

Dry needling can help with most soft tissue injuries. Whether is is chronic trigger points or fascial restrictions, muscle tears, tendonitis and also stiffness in joints and soft tissues. Dry needling can help with chronic pain as it has been shown to desensitise painful areas as well as acute injuries as it has been shown to reduce inflammation,.

What to expect after Dry Needling?

As with most effective techniques, dry needling may have you feeling a sense of stiffness or soreness in the needled region for a couple of days as the tissue repairs itself. This is all very normal and after this recovery process you should feel your symptoms alleviated.

At Muscle Therapy Australia we use Dry Needling in combination with other therapies such as Active Release Techniques, Myofascial Release, Trigger Point Therapy, cupping and Deep Tissue massage as we find this makes it an even more effective treatment than just dry needling alone, getting you out of pain fast. Soft tissue work and stretching after dry needling can also reduce the amount of time you may feel sore after the needling.

So there you have it. These are the major differences between Dry Needling and Acupuncture. So if you are looking for dry needling you need to make sure that the practitioner is trained in dry needling and not just acupuncture. And vice versa, if you are looking for Acupuncture then this needs to be performed by someone qualified in it.

At Muscle Therapy Australia all practitioners are all trained in Dry Needling and us it to get great results.

If you would like to try dry needling or find out more, don’t hesitate to get in touch or book in a session now.

Dry needling isnt for everyone. Those with a needle phobia or who are anxious or sensitivie to needles may find that they can have a negative response. We would advise these people not to have dry needling as other techniques we use would be more beneficial.

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