How I came to practice “dry-needling”:
When my family and I moved to Longmont, CO in the summer of 2014, I was eager to build a community for ourselves every bit as wonderful as the extraordinary community I had left behind in Portland, Oregon. We were fortunate to win a contract on a home in a tough market. But, it was an Old Town home that had lain vacant for six months and was used a rental property prior to its vacancy. In other words, our new little house needed some serious TLC. I began to inquire about local contractors, and found one that did excellent work.
One day, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was an acupuncturist.
“Oh!” he said, “do you do ‘deep-needling’?”
I smiled. DEEP-needling? What on earth was he talking about?
“We are pretty well-trained after 4 years of full-time graduate school,” I replied. “As a rule, we don’t put needles in very deeply. That’s not safe. And it is unnecessary.”
The contractor went on to explain that his doctor had suggested “deep-needling” as a treatment for his calf muscle.
“Oh!” I laughed. “You mean “dry-needling! Yes, of course I do that. Dry-needling is acupuncture — people are just trying to sell it as something different.”
We went on to discuss the differences and similarities between dry-needling and acupuncture.
After our talk, I realized that I should post a page about dry-needling online, because there is so much confusion and misinformation around it.
What is the bottom line?
Your acupuncturist is trained in dry-needling. In fact, your acupuncturist is a dry-needling expert. You should strongly consider seeing a licensed acupuncturist for all your dry-needling needs, because licensed acupuncturists have the most training in how to perform dry-needling safely and effectively.
For more information, read the FAQs below:
What is dry-needling?
Dry-needling is acupuncture. It is just re-branded. Specifically, dry-needling is Sports Acupuncture, which has been a part of acupuncture medicine for centuries.
In dry-needling, we use acupuncture needles and the same acupuncture points as Sports Acupuncture. The main difference between acupuncture and dry-needling is the level of education. As a rule, a licensed acupuncturist has years more needle-specific training than a dry-needling provider.
What does dry-needling treat?
Dry-needling treats the superficial aspect of the body, such as the skeletal muscles. Again, dry-needling is basically Sports Acupuncture.
Why is it called dry-needling?
According to dry-needling, a medical doctor in 1979 was working with what are known as trigger points. The doctor realized that sticking an empty hypodermic needle into a muscle caused a muscle release and healing response. There was not any fluid injected into into the muscle, and the syringe was empty or dry, thus the term “dry” needling.
Over the next few years, this doctor realized that equally good results could be obtained by using modern acupuncture needles instead of the larger-diameter hypodermic needles. This turned out to be a lot less painful for the patients.
Why is this story amusing?
The story of dry-needling’s use of acupuncture needles is amusing because it provides further support for why dry-needling is, in fact, acupuncture:
Centuries ago, before disposable needles were made possible by standardized manufacturing, acupuncturists’ needles were gold and came in a set of seven or more. The needles were large, and rather painful. They used these needles to treat everything from internal organ dysfunction to muscle and ligament complaints.
With the development of technology, assembly manufacturing, and sterile procedures, finer and high-quality disposable acupuncture needles were produced. Happily, acupuncturists realized that these “hair-thin” stainless steel needles worked just as well as larger gold ones.
Dry-needling providers have apparently discovered this, too. 😉
How is dry-needling different than acupuncture?
Well, dry-needling uses FDA-approved acupuncture needles. At least 93% of its points are actually centuries-old acupuncture points.
So, there is not actually a difference. It is a classic case of “tomato” versus “tomahto.” The only difference is that anyone who practices dry-needling who is not a licensed acupuncturist has no idea how those surface points also affect the internal organs and emotions (as well as the muscles and superficial structure of the body).
Then, why does dry-needling exist?
Because it was a re-discovery of acupuncture. For awhile, the founders of dry-needling probably did think they had discovered something new. But by now, they should realize that that is not the case. Dry-needling is Sports Acupuncture.
In what ways do folks claim that it is different?
Dry-needling providers (who do not practice acupuncture) assert that what they do is different because “it is scientific and based on the physical body.”
Of course, the insinuation here is that acupuncture is unscientific and not based on the physical body.
The trouble with this reasoning is that it is totally false.
So, acupuncture is scientific?
Yes. Acupuncture was developed by persons who could very well be considered among the first scientists. We can say that because the defining characteristics of a scientists is the skill of observation and trait of curiosity. The first acupuncturists observed the natural world around them and they observed the functions of the body. Without the benefit of microscopes, higher mathematics, and complex theories of physics, they came to the same conclusions about the physical world that modern science now accepts: All physical things are energy. Even in ancient times, acupuncture was a scientific, physical medicine. Acupuncturists insert physical needles to effect physical changes.
From a research perspective, acupuncture has been studied scientifically for decades now. There is a growing body of scientific research promoting the physical efficacy of acupuncture.
The training of an acupuncturist is also scientific and physical. At acupuncture schools, which require 3-6 years of full-time graduate education to obtain a masters or doctorate level degree, acupuncturists take masters and doctorate-level courses on anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, immunology, research methods, and other scientific subjects.
Finally, in order to obtain national-level board certification, prospective licensed acupuncturists must pass a board exam on biomedicine.
Why are people putting out misinformation, then?
Because it works. Acupuncture works.
If it were acknowledged that they were practicing acupuncture, dry-needling practitioners that do not have an acupuncture license would have to obtain proper training. If they are not already doctors, they would possibly be required to take board examinations.
People who practice dry-needling without an acupuncture license or training want to keep doing it because it earns them additional income and it helps people. It behooves them to insist that what they are doing is somehow different than acupuncture, because then they can skip the required education and board exams.
In reality, dry-needling uses the same points, and the same needles, as acupuncture. The difference is the level of education and understanding. In our opinion, the required education and exams for acupuncture training is necessary for public safety.
Why do dry-needling providers need acupuncture education?
Remember that the body is the body, and it is the same body no matter who is describing (or needling) it.
Centuries ago, it was discovered that certain surface points of the body affect the functioning of internal organs and systems, such as the endocrine, reproductive, and digestive systems. Additionally, it was discovered that certain points also affect the emotional well-being of the person, and can reduce feelings of anger, grief, and fear.
When dry-needling practitioners (who are not licensed acupuncturists) insist that they are only treating the superficial physical level of the body, they are ignoring centuries of traditional and modern scientific research that details how these physical points affect internal processes and emotional health. In our opinion, that is not very scientific nor very responsible at all.
Can you tell me more?
Scientific research has shown that acupuncture points have effects that go far beyond the release of muscle tightness and strain. Research has shown that acupuncture points affect internal organs, systems, and emotions. It does not matter what you call yourself — if you needle these points, you are affecting the whole system.
Science is uncovering new mechanisms of action in acupuncture all the time. Science recognizes that all physical substances have an energetic vibration to them. This means that the body and organs exist on an energetic level, and that communication pathways, such as the blood and nerves, must also have some sort of energetic framework, too. Science is learning more about our energetic reality every year. It has been thought that acupuncture works through signals conducted through the fascia that runs through our entire body. It is important to remember that while science cannot yet explain acupuncture on its own terms, it may be able to do so in the near future.
In the meantime, science does recognize that the traditional East Asian (or energetic) medicine theory holds up in clinical practice. The fact remains that the physical effects of acupuncture that are currently explicable only according to traditional East Asian energetic theory continue to occur in clinics worldwide. Acupuncture points do affect emotions and internal organ health. And science does recognize it.
Because the effects are real, in addition to education on the scientific physical processes of the body, acupuncture education also includes education on the ancient theories of energetic anatomy, such as the channels or meridians that are said to provide health and structure to the physical and emotional body.
Are acupuncturists against dry-needling providers?
Of course not. We support all therapies that help people, and sports acupuncture (aka, dry-needling) does help people. We do, however, want people who practice acupuncture to be adequately trained in it.
There is currently no national standard for dry-needling. In fact, there are very few state standards. In some states, physical therapists are allowed to practice dry needling after taking just one weekend workshop. To many licensed acupuncturists, this is entirely unacceptable and totally unsafe. We believe that if someone wants to practice acupuncture, that is great! They just need to get appropriate training so that they know what they are doing to organs, hormones, and emotional systems.
Is there anything more to it?
We would also like acupuncture to be given its due recognition and respect. This isn’t 1492 and we do not believe it is acceptable to ransack ancient cultures, to re-brand their accomplishments as modern discoveries. It simply is not right.
What is the take-away?
Re-discoveries are wonderful, but that does not make them new or different. Dry-needling is like a young child discovering that trees grow towards the sun. While that may be news to the child, and it is wonderful that he’s figured it out for himself, that fact has already been known and part of cultural awareness for a long time.
In other words, we’d like to tell dry-needling providers: Yes, when you stick a needle in certain points, it creates a healing response. Congratulations — you’ve re-discovered the very basics of acupuncture. But there is a lot more you haven’t discovered yet, and we have whole books and stacks of research on it. Let us train you up in it.
Where can I learn more?
Click here to to read the official position paper of the NCCAOM, which has links to additional position papers of other acupuncture organizations.