Acupuncture, Dry Needling and Cupping – What’s the Difference?

Ana Coan
Woman in activewear with cupping marks on back

Do you know the difference between acupuncture and dry needling? And what exactly is cupping – and can it benefit you? In this article, we describe these therapeutic techniques in detail and outline the role each can play in treating various health conditions and musculoskeletal injuries.

Specifically, we’ll explain how allied health professionals use acupuncture, dry needling and cupping to help manage pain, stiffness and tightness and improve mobility in musculoskeletal injuries.

So, to learn the similarities and differences between these techniques and discover how each can enhance your pain relief and recovery, read on.


Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for over 3000 years, acupuncture is a therapeutic technique used to improve the flow of energy, or ‘chi’. According to the World Health Organization, acupuncture includes body needling (including traditional, medical, modern, dry needling [on myofascial trigger points], etc.), moxibustion (burning of herbs), electroacupuncture (needles and electrodes), laser acupuncture (application of laser at acupuncture points), microsystem acupuncture (e.g. ear acupuncture), and acupressure (application of pressure at acupuncture points). 

Image Source: 123RF


Distinguishing itself from acupuncture, which is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine principles of meridians and the body’s energy flow, dry needling is grounded in Western medicine concepts. It involves the insertion of thin, solid needles to treat hyperirritable, often palpable myofascial trigger points or tension points in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, or other soft tissues.

Also known as ‘knots’, myofascial trigger points are tight bands of tissue that initially arise to protect the area from potential damage stimuli. These points can spontaneously appear and, when stimulated/irritated can result in local and referred pain, alter muscle activation resulting in weakness, and restrict the range of motion in the joints.

Multiple factors can cause knots to arise. However, increased load and stress as well as sustained positions, such as poor desk posture, are the main triggers.

As an evidence-based therapy commonly used in modern physiotherapy, myotherapy and remedial massage treatments, dry needling helps to release tension, promote pain relief, decrease inflammation and increase mobility and flexibility. Research shows it has good results for acute/chronic conditions related to the muscular and tendon system, such as rotator cuff injuries, spine-related pain, and calf and ankle muscle and tendon conditions.

Helping to boost blood flow and restore healthy function to the affected tissues, dry needling promotes faster healing.


Like acupuncture, cupping is an ancient technique derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine. It involves the use of suction glass or plastic cups in specific areas to stimulate the skin and muscle tissues below and enables muscle relaxation and tissue hydration. And you’ve no doubt seen its tell-tale red-ringed effects on professional athletes (footballers in particular).

The most common cupping techniques involve applying the suction cups directly onto an area and leaving them there for a few minutes or using movements to sustain the suction in the cup across a wider area. Another technique is known as ‘wet cupping’ and involves blood removal by making small cuts in the skin. (We offer dry cupping only in the Studio.)

Cupping creates a vacuum effect in the glass or plastic cup, helping to increase blood supply and improve hydration of the tissues. It also helps dissolve tight bands in underlying areas, treating and preventing the appearance of tight knots.  

A minimally invasive approach, cupping is considered a safe technique, with the main side effect being circular discolouration of the skin on the application area. This technique aims to treat soft tissue conditions affecting the muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage.

Similar to dry needling, cupping treats myofascial trigger points and promotes improvements in overall mobility and flexibility. It can help to reduce pain and inflammation and assist with the management of chronic conditions related to the muscular system. 


Used for many years by allied health professionals such as physios, Chinese medicine practitioners, myotherapists and remedial massage therapists, all three techniques promote overall wellbeing by treating the tissues below.

Like any technique, each has contraindications and indications and some risk involved, and your practitioner is the best person to determine which will be most suitable for your condition.

To maximise the effects of acupuncture, dry needling or cupping when treating musculoskeletal tension or injury, each technique should be used alongside other therapeutic strategies. These include regular exercise, massage and manual therapy, weight control, education and risk management.

We have therapists skilled in dry needling and cupping at The Alignment Studio. Do not hesitate to contact us on 9650 2220 to learn more about these services.