Dry Needling and Acupuncture are Too Closely Related For Comfort

CC asks: “Can you tell me if ‘dry needling’ is a New Age practice?  I have heard a couple of people mention having had it done by their physicians in recent months and had never heard of it.”

Although dry needling, also called biomedical acupuncture, is different from acupuncture, and is not based on the insertion of needles in traditional acupuncture meridian sites, it is said to have been derived from acupuncture.

According to a Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy statement on dry needling, this treatment involves the insertion of a needle at a “trigger point” in the body, such as those that occur in skeletal muscles that produce pain. These trigger points are often associated with tension headaches, tinnitus, and pain in the joints or lower back. Similar to accupuncture, a dry needle is inserted into the trigger point directly instead of into the meridians (alleged energy centers) prescribed by traditional Chinese medical practitioners of acupuncture.  Dry needling also uses the same type of acupuncture needle – a solid, round point, small gauge needle.

“Despite the fact that dry needling has been known for years, there have been few published studies measuring the effect on patient outcomes published in the peer reviewed literature. Those studies that are available have design flaws or comprise small study samples so that it is not possible to draw conclusions regarding patient outcomes,” Blue Cross writes.

It is therefore considered to be “experimental/investigational” and does not appear to be covered by this insurance provider.

According to Dr. Yuan-tao Ma, the author of a textbook on dry needling for physical therapists, this modality was first developed in the 1940’s by Janet Travell, M.D., a medical advisor to the White House during JFK’s administration. He and other proponents of the practice claim it is based on modern neurological research that suggests acupuncture treatments may work based on the release of pain-relieving endorphins or through nerve stimulation. While this is an intriguing and very plausible concept, it has yet to be demonstrated to a clinically relevant degree.

I could not recommend dry needling only because most of its proponents are practicing Chinese acupuncturists (and Chinese acupuncture is one of the darlings of New Age medicine) and because it’s not supported by evidence-based science.

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