The most basic answer I give my patients is that “where you stick the needle and why” is the main difference between acupuncture and dry needling. There are certainly similarities, the biggest being that acupuncture and dry needles are one and the same.
However, there are also some major differences.
First, the philosophy is very different. Acupuncture originated in Asia thousands of years ago, and is based on restoring energy flow or “Chi” along specific pathways (meridians) in the body. A very wide range of conditions are treated by acupuncturists, ranging from allergies to depression to abdominal pain.
In contrast, Dry Needling is a much newer practice based on modern understanding of Human Anatomy and Physiology. With Dry Needling, the focus is on directly stimulating chronically sore or painful muscles or nerve pathways in the body to trigger the body’s own healing response. Treatments are focused on muscular and nerve-related issues, but not other body or mind issues (e.g. anxiety, depression, indigestion, allergies, etc.). Also unlike acupuncture, treatment is focused primarily on the area diagnosed as having dysfunction.
For example: If you have neck pain, Dry Needling treatment will usually consist of treatment entirely focusing around the neck region. Tight or over-active muscles and nerves will be diagnosed and targeted.
In contrast, with Acupuncture some needles may be placed at distant areas of the body as well, far away from the neck. Acupuncturists would likely also place needles in the neck in this case, but where they insert the needles will be based upon their understanding of restoring “Chi” and energy flow. That means different locations will likely be targeted, even within the neck, as compared to a practitioner performing Dry Needling.
Becoming a licensed acupuncturist requires specific training, typically over a period of around 3 years.
Training to practice Dry Needling can be incorporated into or after the formal education for a few different types of healthcare professionals including Physical Therapists, Physicians, and Chiropractors. Training for these professions is typically much shorter than for acupuncture, because all of these professions have already had extensive anatomy and physiology education as part of their schooling.