What is Dry Needling?  How is it different from Acupuncture?

A growing number of Physical Therapists and other medical professionals are beginning to offer a treatment they call Dry Needling or Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS). You may have noticed that Dry Needling bears a striking resemblance to Acupuncture, and you may have been wondering what it is, how it is different from Acupuncture and which therapy is right for you. 

Dry needling is a term coined by Janet Travell, M.D. in the mid 20th century. She used empty hypodermic needles to diffuse trigger points (the term “dry” refers to the fact that the needles were empty). Physical Therapists have continued to refer to this therapy as dry needling even though they now use acupuncture needles. 

So what's the difference?

There's no difference in that both use acupuncture needles and both treat trigger points (painful areas), but there is a big difference in the scope of what can be treated and the training required to do so. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association(AMA), the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation(AAPMR) and our own Georgia Composite Medical Board have recognized that dry needling is a sub-type of acupuncture and is indistinguishable from acupuncture. However, the training required to perform dry needling is only 50 hours where the requirement to practice acupuncture is much more significant.

Acupuncturists obtain a Masters degree which includes, in addition to biomedical (western medical) training, at least 1365 hours of acupuncture-specific training, including 705 hours of acupuncture specific didactic material and 660 hours of supervised clinical training, and in most states, including Georgia, are required to pass a national competency exam. Further, in Georgia, acupuncturists without at least one year of post graduate practice must have one year of supervised practice under a licensed acupuncturist before becoming fully licensed to practice. Continuing education is also a requirement to continue practicing acupuncture. Contrast that with 50 hours of training required for physical therapists with no national standardized competency examinations, training standards, supervised practice requirements nor continuing education requirements for the safe practice of Dry Needling. There is indeed a big difference!

Recent reports of serious and potentially life-threatening injuries associated with “dry needling” include pneumothoraces (lung puncture) and spinal cord injury. While these types of injuries are possible with acupuncture as well, they are rare due to the level of training required to practice acupuncture. When performed without adequate education, training, and independent competency examination, “dry needling” presents a substantial threat to public safety. Some states have even banned physical therapists from practicing dry needling due to public safety concerns.

Which therapy is right for you?

Even without the safety issue, the distinction between trigger points and acupuncture points for the relief of pain is blurred. There is a high degree of correspondence between published locations of trigger points and classical acupuncture points for the relief of pain. There really isn't anything that dry needling can do that acupuncture cannot, but there is a lot that acupuncture can do in the hands of a trained, licensed practitioner to not only alleviate pain, but provide treatment for any underlying cause of pain. And acupuncture treats so much more than pain. So if you have pain and also can't sleep or have digestive issues, acupuncture can address all of those issues. Acupuncture treats the whole body and not just pain in a certain location. Wouldn't you rather have someone with extensive training who will look at the whole picture rather than someone with minimal training who treats a single issue?

Posted in Acupuncture