Acupuncture and Dry Needling

What is Dry Needling?

In recent years there has been an increased practice of what has been termed “dry needling” by physiotherapists, osteopaths, doctors and members of other similar professions dealing with treatment of musculo-skeletal conditions. Dry needling is in fact part of acupuncture practice, as is wet needling; the injection of fluids with syringes. All involve the insertion of needles.

Practitioners use the term Dry Needling because you can’t call yourself an Acupuncturist unless you have studied a minimum of 4 years in Chinese Medicine, including hundreds of hours of safe needle handling and aspect technique. There is such a difference in qualification in fact, that the American Medical Association have issued a statement warning against dry needling by non-acupuncture trained professionals. Check out the video:

What is Acupuncture and What is the Theory Behind It?

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine needles into the skin. Acupuncture is one branch of Chinese Medicine. Fundamental to it’s theory is an energetic perspective. An effective way to explain this is to look at nature. Our planet spins around its geographical axis, having a geometric field with a North and South pole. The same magnetic force field is present in every living cell, each with its positive and negative pole. The human body as a whole similarly has its own force field. In China it is called Qi (pronounced “chee”). Some use the word energy or even Prana for you Yogi’s out there. Whichever words we use to describe it, this force field is made up of energy that is in constant motion.

What is the Difference Between Acupuncture and Dry Needling?

Acupuncture close upFor the layperson, it’s hard to tell. Both seem to use the same tools & method.

Dry Needling is predominantly comprised of acupuncture techniques; primarily from the Ming dynasty. Trigger points and painful areas are inserted with acupuncture needles; in Traditional Chinese Medicine this is termed “ahshi” needling.

Acupuncture is the combination of the ahshi needling with the needling of other more distant and adjacent points that affect the problematic area with greater effect.

The dry needling/basic ahshi approach is also very focused on physical symptoms but doesn’t treat the root of such symptoms in the same way that the inclusion of other acupuncture techniques can; ie. the use of points for causative factors such as stress and metabolic problems.

So, now you know the difference between dry needling and acupuncture although both share some similarities.

Is Dry Needling Safe?

Not unless the practitioner has an Acupuncture or Medical degree. Which includes hundreds of hours of needle use training. Any other practitioner is under qualified in my view, and the American Medical Association’s view.

How Many Types of Acupuncture are There?

Many, there is auriculo (ear) acupuncture, laser acupuncture, cosmetic acupuncture, Korean acupuncture, japanese acupuncture, French-style acupuncture to name a few.

What is the Cost of Acupuncture?

Costs can vary with location and experience of the practitioner. Most range between $70 to $120 per session. Private Health Insurance Rebates and Concession Rates often apply. There is also Community Acupuncture which is cheaper, usually $30-$40 per session.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Basically, Acupuncture works by stimulating a trigger point on the skin which sends a message through the body. Qi flows through pathways in the body called meridians, which connect to our internal organs. In order to have a healthy body and mind, Qi needs to be in abundance and circulating freely. Balance is also required. This is the traditional theory which has been around for thousands of years.

More recently, research has shown that works through neurohormonal pathways. Basically, you put the needle through specific points in the body and stimulate the nerve. The nerve actually sends signals to the brain, and the brain releases neural hormones such as beta-Endorphins, which can increase the pain threshold. Recent research has examined some of the mechanisms underpinning acupuncture’s anti-inflammatory effects which include mediation by sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways.

The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has been reported to mediate the anti-edema effects of acupuncture. Other reported anti-inflammatory effects of acupuncture include an antihistamine action and downregulation of proinflammatory cytokines (such as TNF-α, IL-1β, IL-6, and IL-10), proinflammatory neuropeptides (such as SP, CGRP, and VIP), and neurotrophins (such as NGF and BDNF) which can enhance and prolong inflammatory response. Acupuncture has been reported to suppress the expression of COX-1, COX-2, and iNOS during experimentally induced inflammation. Downregulation of the expression and sensitivity of the transient receptor potential vallinoid 1 (TRPV1) after acupuncture has been reported.

In summary, acupuncture may exert anti-inflammatory effects through a complex neuro-endocrino-immunological network of actions. (Source: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/591796/).

What Conditions Can Be Treated by Acupuncture?

Acupuncture has a long history of use in the treatment of a wide range of conditions and can do a lot more than merely treat muscle pain and pain relief. Acupuncturists regularly treat conditions affecting the respiratory, digestive, cardio-vascular, reproductive, urinary and nervous systems.

So there you go, we now know the differences between acupuncture and dry needling technique.

Written by Dr. Elaine Hickman (B.H.Sc- Acupuncture), Cert.Cl.Ac. (Beijing) of Freedom Chinese Medicine in Ivanhoe, Melbourne, Australia

Elaine Hickman portrait

Dr. Elaine Hickman has trained and worked in various settings, both in Australia and China. She has over 20 years experience in treating many health problems. Elaine loves to provide a health care experience for people that is respectful, effective, empowering and enjoyable. Elaine’s acupuncture treatments are gentle, powerful, amazingly relaxing and incorporate Japanese & Chinese techniques, as well as Medical Qi Gong if appropriate.

She runs a private practice in Ivanhoe and is the trusted family physician of many. Elaine is a registered Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). She completed a Bachelor of Health Science – TCM, majoring in Acupuncture, and a hospital internship in China in 1998. Elaine is the Principal Practitioner at Freedom Chinese Medicine, managing a dedicated team of practitioners & staff, and supervises many TCM students in clinical training. Elaine’s passion for Chinese Medicine has her regularly furthering her education, Qi Gong training and sharing knowledge.


Kalichman, L. Volfsums, S. (2010) Dry Needling in the Management of Musculoskeletal Pain, The journal of American Family Medicine, Volume 23, No. 5 pp. 640-646

Legge, D. (2014), A History of Dry Needling, cited 24/03/2015;http://www.theneedleeffect.com

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