What is the difference between acupuncture and dry needling?

Acupuncture on person's hand

Let’s begin with the distinction between dry needling and wet needling. Whereas wet needling involves an injection of a substance, dry needling does not. Wet needling uses hollow needles; dry needling uses solid needles.

In this sense, acupuncture is a form of dry needling. But dry needling has come to mean something more specific: the insertion of solid needles, for the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions, based on biomedical anatomy.

The implication is that acupuncture is different because it is based exclusively on a different anatomical system, the acupuncture channels where many of the acupuncture points are located. Contrary to the evidence base that has found musculoskeletal pain to be the number-one condition that acupuncture can effectively treat, some would even argue that acupuncture is also different because it is exclusively for the treatment of non-musculoskeletal imbalances in the body that cause disease. Regardless, the belief is that the depth of insertion for acupuncture is exclusively very superficial, into skin but not muscle.

Here are a few things to consider: The acupuncture channels are located according to what is now called biomedical anatomy. They are inseparable, like yīn and yáng. In fact, many of the “trigger points” (a modern term) that are used to trigger muscular release are also acupuncture points (which go back to ancient China). That is, these “trigger points” were acupuncture points first. Additionally, there is something we acupuncturists call an āshì point. It refers to a point of tenderness that may or may not be located on a designated acupuncture point. In other words, any point on the body could be an acupuncture point.

The term “dry needling” is typically used by non-acupuncturists, such as chiropractors and physical therapists, who insert solid needles to treat musculoskeletal conditions. Sometimes it is even used by acupuncturists as a way to advertise that they treat musculoskeletal conditions using needling that is both directly at the site of the condition and deeper than they would use if they were treating a non-musculoskeletal condition. The difference is that non-acupuncturists don’t attend years of school to learn how to use solid needles for therapeutic purposes. Here in Oregon, it is illegal for chiropractors and physical therapists to use solid needles in their practice.

The bottom line is, whether something is advertised as acupuncture or dry needling, make sure the person giving it to you is a licensed acupuncturist.

So, if you’re wondering if we do dry needling at The Even Out Project, the three-inch-long needles we carry (and often use to release a muscle that can cause shooting pains down the back of the thigh if tight) should answer your question. The muscle is called the piriformis, and the acupuncture point we use to release it, which has come to be called a trigger point, has been called Huán Tiào (Jumping Circle) for much, much, much longer.