Acupuncture vs Dry Needling

Taylor Premer, DC

January 8, 2019

One of the most common inquiries we get at Winchester Spine & Sport is about the differences between Dry Needling and Acupuncture. Dry Needling vs Acupuncture is not an easy distinction to make because of the multitude of similarities. To name a few: the same needles are used in Dry Needling vs Acupuncture, the same care is taken to maintain a safe and sterile environment, each of the needling schools of thought are also quick to point out the importance of a thorough assessment, and each look at the whole body as a player in pain and dysfunction.


Acupuncture has been a viable option for treatment of musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction for thousands of years. Ironically, much is still unknown about its mechanism of action and effectiveness in the treatment room. The traditional explanation of acupuncture is balancing energy referred to as Qi by means of specific meridians and points along these meridians where needles are traditionally placed. However, research published in Pain (the official journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain) established that “every trigger point has a corresponding acupuncture point.”(1) This correlation may be a good explanation for the effectiveness of treating musculoskeletal pain with Acupuncture. Another promising explanation for mechanism of action for Acupuncture is the fascia’s spontaneous unwinding that occurs during mechanical stimulus of needles as noted in Langevin, et al. Work (2).

Dry Needling

Dry Needling is based on the concept of “Ashi” acupuncture, which translates to “Ah yes! That’s the spot” in English. Traditional Chinese acupuncturists would palpate for tender areas in the musculature and insert needles directly into these areas for pain relief. These painful areas were more than likely active trigger points as explained in Travell & Simons’ work. Travell & Simons pointed to these active trigger points as major players in myofascial pain syndrome (3). In an attempt to make  a simple distinction between the two styles of needling, Dry Needling can be referred to as “Off-Meridian needling.” The term “Dry Needling,” just refers to the clinician not utilizing medications or other substances on or through the needle. Trigger Points can develop for a multitude of reasons and many techniques have been discussed in the literature and text for handling them.

It is impossible to determine the perfect way of handling each individual case and there really isn’t literature that says Dry Needling is better at eliminating trigger points as compared to other interventions. However, patient comfort and the speed at which the clinician can affect the target tissue makes it a very sought after treatment for both patient and clinician.

As far as efficacy between the two styles, neither one has been studied very well in a randomized-controlled manner. The most compelling explanation of the mechanism appears to be the correlation between acupuncture meridians and connective tissue planes. There also appears to be a mechanical effect the needle has on the fascia (4). Both styles need to be studied more to determine the exact mechanism and whether or not one is better than the other.

Are you interested in Dry Needling/Acupuncture? Or want to know more about it?

Please call the Winchester Spine and Sport front office at (636)356-5557.

  1. Melzack R, Stillwell DM, Fox EJ. Trigger points and acupuncture points for pain: correlations and implications. Pain. 1977 Feb;3(1):3-23
  2. Langevin, H. &  Yandow, J. “Relationship of Acupuncture Points and Meridians to Connective Tissue Planes”, The Anatomical Record, 2002
  3. Travell, Janet; Simons David; Simons Lois (1999). Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual (2 vol. set, 2nd Ed.). USA: Lippincott Williams & Williams.
  4. Langevin HM, Yandow JA. Relationship of acupuncture points and meridians to connective tissue planes. Anat Rec. 2002;269(6):257-65.

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