What's the difference between dry needling & acupuncture? Common questions, expert answers
A question that I hear more and more frequently in the last couple of years from patients is, "What is the difference between acupuncture and dry needling?" This is typically prompted after a patient has been offered dry needling at their physical therapist's office or after they have been doing some searching for pain relief techniques on Google. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so let me break it down for everyone by answering some questions!
I read a blog that said dry needling is a different procedure from acupuncture, is that true?
In a word, no. Many non-acupuncturists out there will tell you that dry needling and acupuncture are separate and distinct procedures that seem similar but are different. Their thought process behind this is that dry needling is based on Western anatomy and physiology and that acupuncture is based on an Eastern, more esoteric/unscientific, view of the body.
Let me clear this up for everyone, that thought process stems from a lack of knowledge about the modern state of acupuncture education and practice. Yes, acupuncture has a 3,000+ year history that began in very shamanistic/unscientific ways (not unlike every other medical system's early development), but over time the practice evolved into a stratified, logical system (2,500 years ago), and over more recent years (the last couple hundred) began incorporating Western medical knowledge. In fact, no less than 1/3 of our 4-5 year accredited post-graduate training programs is in Western science and medicine.
Ok, but they say they needle trigger points, not acupuncture points, so it has to be different, right?
Nope. Trigger points are part of the system of acupuncture points and always have been. In the ancient texts they are referred to as "ashi" (pronounced aw-sure) points. In essence, trigger points (as well as muscle motor points which are also a part of acupuncture training & education) are just a type of acupuncture point - not a different, unrelated system of points.
Physical therapists must get extensive training in dry needling, so what's the big deal if I get needled by a PT instead of an acupuncturist?
It might shock you as a consumer to learn that physical therapists in the State of Nevada (and most other states) have NO educational, training, or licensure requirements to add dry needling to their practice! Most take a weekend seminar with as little as 8 hours of hands-on instruction.
Just to put this into context, acupuncturists in Nevada must have completed an accredited training program of 2,500 classroom hours, plus a minimum of 500 supervised clinical internship hours to be licensed, plus complete continuing education every year to maintain their licensure. Most accredited acupuncture programs have 800-1000 internship hours (mine was 1,000).
Wow, that's a big difference!
It sure is.
But I have heard that insurance covers dry needling, but not acupuncture. What if I can't afford to pay for acupuncture out of pocket?
Actually, many insurances DO cover acupuncture these days. And in fact, they do not cover dry needling because there is no procedure code (known as CPT code) for dry needling. Physical therapists that are billing insurance for dry needling are probably doing so by billing it under a manual therapy code, which is technically inaccurate and may even be fraudulent (doing one procedure and billing it as a different procedure is at the very least ethically problematic).
When should I see a PT vs an acupuncturist?
In short, if you are in need of muscle rehabilitation, see your physical therapist. They are well trained to help you rehab after an injury and can teach you the proper ways to strengthen your muscles and stabilize your joints. It's their area of expertise and no one is better at it. I routinely recommend physical therapy to patients when it is indicated.
However, if you're suffering from pain that therapeutic exercise is not completely addressing (and maybe even have other issues you'd like to address such as poor sleep, low energy, hormonal imbalances, anxiety, headaches, etc.), then the expert you can feel confident consulting is your local acupuncturist or Doctor of Oriental Medicine.
Be an informed healthcare consumer. You wouldn't ask your plumber to do electrical work, would you?