Despite the apparent similarities, acupuncture and dry needling are completely different.
Acupuncture originated in China, with the first unequivocal record dating back to 100 BC in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. However, some scholars believe that it could be much older than that. Either way, it is pretty old indeed!
There are different types of Acupuncture, but all of them include the theory of meridians running through the body, with points located along these meridians. These points are used to stimulate nerves in order to affect energy and organ systems (1). Because the body is interconnected through this meridian system, an acupuncturist may needle your ankles to relieve neck pain.
Dry needling is a modern western invention from the 1980s (younger than me!). And it is does not use meridians or acupuncture points theory.
Dry needling aims to target myofascial trigger points to release muscle tightness and relieve pain, using a larger sturdier needle than is typically used during acupuncture. Unlike acupuncture, which can work distally, the needles are only placed in the affected area.
Dry needling is a modern adaptation of a small component of acupuncture, in which we target sore points (called Ashi points in Traditional Chinese medicine) in order to relieve localised pain.
In other words, acupuncturists also practise dry needling, but a dry needler is NOT an acupuncturist.
Why is it important to know the difference?
Dry needling is mostly performed by physiotherapists, massage therapist, chiropractors and osteopaths. And for them, the training required to perform this technique is equivalent to a weekend course (16 hours) as it is not normally included in their curriculum. In Australia, traditional Acupuncture training lasts 4-5 years.
When a practitioner is not properly trained in needling, the risk of side effects increases, and some of these side effects can be as dangerous as puncturing an internal organ.
Furthermore, the title acupuncturist is a protected and heavily regulated title in Australia, that should only be used by licensed and registered acupuncturist.
When choosing an acupuncturist or a dry needle practitioner, make sure you check their level of experience, qualifications and more importantly, make sure they are an AHPRA registered practitioner.