What Is Dry Needling?

What is Dry Needling?

“Oh, I’ve heard of dry needling. It’s like Acupuncture, right?”

As physical therapists who are trained and certified in dry needling, this is a hard question to answer. The answer is yes, but no. Some people have never heard of dry needling and it remains a foreign concept to them. Others are vaguely familiar with it but do not quite understand the extent to which it works. This post is meant to give a broad overview of the similarities and differences between acupuncture and dry needling for treatment options or simply informative purposes.

Both acupuncture and dry needling puncture the skin with a thin, monofilament needle to be used for therapeutic purposes. The needles themselves are similar in size, shape, and diameter and quite often are considered synonymous. While both can be clinically effective, the similarities end here since there are stark differences in the foundations from which they stem.

Traditional Chinese acupuncture was developed 2,500+ years ago in an ancient agricultural Chinese society. Ancient Chinese believed there were universal laws that govern the universe, nature, social structure, human medicine, disease, and the human body. Examples of these universal laws include the Yin-Yang, Chi (the life force that flows through all nature) and meridians (the channels through which energy flows), and the Five Elements Theory (interrelation between wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). The laws of Chinese medicine are human-formed historical concepts, not natural laws of science, which means they are based on ancient human thoughts and biases. They have not changed with the development of new research, but rather have modified any new information to fit their universal laws. Acupuncture talks quite a bit about aligning a person’s energy, or Chi. The primary philology of acupuncture is that the body can be healed when Chi is released.

By stark contrast, dry needling is based on the laws of modern medicine. Modern, Western medicine consists of biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and physics. Much like the advances in medicine and science, dry needling dynamically advances with new research. It can be used to reduce tissue tension, improve microcirculation, and normalize physiological processes. The effects of dry needling can be local, segmental, and even systematic and can even reduce chronic inflammation.

Within dry needling, there are different sub-categories as well that can highlight the focus on either local, segmental, or systemic effects. There is a trigger point release which is inserting the needle into a hyperirritable spot of muscle associated with a palpable module or taut band to relieve pain. This is meant to create a more local effect. Another category of dry needing uses key areas where a nerve is most easily accessible to allow a single needle to have a greater, systemic effect along with the segmental distribution of that nerve.

Whether or not you choose to explore dry needling or acupuncture for treatment, having a good foundational knowledge base can help in choosing which may be better for you. Talk to one of our physical therapists today by scheduling a free 15-minute consult to discuss your pain and see if dry needling could work well for you! Call 616.256.8679 to schedule an appointment or ask questions.


Dry needling vs. Acupuncture: Benefits and uses. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321989. Accessed January 7, 2022.

Powell T. Dry needling – hype or help? Virginian Rehabilitation & Wellness. https://www.vaoptherapy.org/new-blog/dry-needling-hype-or-help?gclid=Cj0KCQiAw9qOBhC-ARIsAG-rdn5HBfCf82IR5jokhwsHBHUswmPxg89uObZ3HKQZTuWRueDwkSPscrsaAvjdEALw_wcB. Published July 28, 2021. Accessed January 7, 2022.

Shah, J.P., & Danoff, J.V., Desai, M.J., Parikh, S., Nakamura, L.Y., Phillips, T.M., & Gerber, L.H. (2008). Biochemicals Associated With Pain and Inflammation are Elevated in Sites Near to and Remote From Active Myofascial Trigger Points. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 89(1), 16-23. http://doi.org/10.1016j.apmr.2007.10.018.

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Cathryn Fischer, DPT