As I get closer to rounding out my 4-year stint of Acupuncture school, I have become more and more confident about this form of medicine. It often consumes my thoughts as it has totally shifted how I perceive the world and our role in it; needless to say, my passion to share Chinese Medicine with everyone is undeniable. I’m still in the ‘baby’ stages of growing into this vast field of simple, yet intricately complex, modality of health. I appreciate those before me who have been practicing for 5, 10, 20, or 40+ years – it’s a never ending path of a winding road which I am excited to be traveling.
With that being said, there is a technique that has become familiarized in the Western world that I often get asked about since it ‘looks’ like acupuncture – the use of needles to relieve pain. Something that acupuncture is SO good for. BUT, I’m referring to Dry Needling, or Trigger Point Therapy that is NOT performed by a licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.), rather by a Physical Therapist, Chiropractor, or Medical Doctor.
This is not knocking any of those professions or practitioners; this is to inform those who are unaware of the differences (and dangers) of dry needling.
There is a reason dry needling is illegal in California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, and Florida.
Dry Needling (or “Trigger Point Therapy”) is a treatment that is recently being popularized by qualified practitioners to help treat myofascial pain and aid in the recovery of muscular or joint injuries. In 1979 Czech physician Karel Lewit first introduced the concept of dry needling with trigger points, which are areas in the muscle that are knotted up and need to be released. Acupuncture needles are inserted and typically manipulated in the muscle on those trigger points to help relieve pain by creating a twitch response of the muscle. Although dry needling involves acupuncture needles, the origin behind it is not similar to traditional acupuncture and has only recently been put into practice; the science behind dry needling is based off Western neuroanatomy studies rather than ancient teachings as in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
To be able to perform dry needling, a weekend course and/or a much smaller amount of time is required to obtain the right to dry needle; often, a certification course of 15 hours is what most practitioners have to attend before they can perform dry needling. The controversy is due to the fact that it is an invasive practice in which needles are placed in the body by untrained professionals (most commonly physical therapists and chiropractors) who lack the proper education of needle insertion.
Unlike licensed acupuncturists who are trained with over 2,000 clinical hours, national board exams, and years of schooling, physicians who perform dry needling are not usually properly trained on needle insertion angle or depth. If the needle is inserted improperly, the risk of puncturing an organ, blood vessel, vein, artery, or nerve greatly increases. Dry needling is also known for heavily stimulating the needle on the trigger point, whereas traditional Chinese medicine will stimulate the needle with the knowledge of how deep or how much to stimulate and move the needle.
Although it is claimed that dry needling is effective at treating and alleviating pain, many states have outlawed it due to the dangers it can cause. The public may view acupuncture and dry needling as the same thing, when in fact, it is very different. I personally feel that dry needling demotes licensed acupuncturists and their practice.
This Western approach to acupuncture does not recognize the root concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine; dry needling works on releasing a muscle, but not correcting the issue. Every physical pain has a background story that is more than just a tight knot.
Yes, releasing knots are super helpful (also something we are trained in), but if the needles are inserted too deep or at a wrong angle (especially around the shoulders, chest, and back… big pain areas), the risk for a pneumothorax GREATLY increases. Pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung, is not common among trained acupuncturists, but is seen more in physical therapy settings. Again, there is a scope of training that must be learned how to needle along areas of the body. Dry needling is dangerous.
My advice? Seek out a Licensed Acupuncturist (there are even some who specialize in sports therapy and trigger point therapy) through this site , stay informed, and always dig a little deeper than the surface.