Wellness·4 min read

Dry Needling vs. Acupuncture: Your Questions, Answered

Woman with Needles Being Put in Back
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
May 3, 2022

When you’re in pain (or just feeling generally off) getting jabbed with a needle might not seem like the best idea. But for people who swear by dry needling and acupuncture, that’s the plan. Both therapies involve using needles to relieve discomfort. Which is pretty much where their similarities start — and end. We looked into both methods. So that you could know which issues each of them can address, how they work, and if there are any risks to consider.

What is dry needling therapy? 

Dry needling, also called intramuscular stimulation, helps relieve muscle pain and may improve flexibility and range of motion. Practitioners identify “trigger points,” which are tight muscles that can cause discomfort and interfere with function. They then insert multiple thin, short stainless steel (filiform) needles into those areas.  

The needles stay in the body for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. With the goal of increasing blood flow, releasing tightness, and reducing pain.

Dry needling has been around since the ‘80s. And while there’s limited research into dry needling and its effectiveness, there’s some evidence that dry needling is better than not treating pain at all. Dry needling isn’t regulated by any official industry body. And practitioners don’t complete any standard training, or earn a certificate or license. So do your research into the clinic and the practitioner. And make sure they’re using sterile needles that are disposed of after each use. Also worth noting: Some insurance companies may not cover your dry needling treatments.

How is acupuncture different from dry needling?

Acupuncture has been a staple of Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. It centers on the idea of chi (or qi). Aka the body’s energy life force that moves throughout meridians. Which some people consider to be “highways” in the body. Acupuncture’s believed to help keep your body balanced and its energy flowing. The therapy stimulates the nervous system, which then leads to the release of endorphins. And may trigger the body’s natural healing capabilities. 

Unlike dry needling, acupuncture could potentially help with a range of health issues and conditions — not just isolated pain areas. That includes dental pain, migraines, and more. Your lifestyle, behaviors, and where you’re feeling pain all help the practitioner decide which acupuncture treatment is best for you. 

A practitioner typically inserts the needles into specific areas along the body's meridians. They're located in various parts of the body. Even in the ears, where acupuncture may help with issues like lower back pain

The practitioner may move the needle around, or add electrical pulses or heat to the needle. And they’ll remain in place for about 10 to 20 minutes.  Acupuncture’s also different from dry needling because it is regulated. To get certified, an acupuncturist typically trains for three to four years at an acupuncture school or college program. They’re also tested by a national board of examiners and they take additional courses each year to maintain their certification.

There’s also lots of research on acupuncture’s effectiveness for treating certain conditions. 

Acupuncture is covered by some private or public insurance companies, but each plan is different. For example, Cigna covers acupuncture for services related to pregnancy and chemotherapy nausea, as well as migraines. 

Do dry needling or acupuncture hurt? 

The needles used for both treatments are thin and should be inserted gently enough to not cause pain. But you may feel a mild, dull ache or muscle twitches once they’re inside. Those feelings are normal. And are usually signs that the needles are activating the problem areas. 

Are there any side effects associated with dry needling or acupuncture? 

Common side effects include light bruising and bleeding, and temporary soreness around the poked areas. Speak to your doc before trying dry needling or acupuncture. Be extra cautious if you have a pacemaker or are pregnant. Because you could be at higher risk for side effects. 


Acupuncture and dry-needling may look alike on the surface. But they actually treat different conditions, in different ways. It all comes down to what you’re hoping to achieve. 

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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