Mainstream medicine is largely stumped when it comes to alleviating back pain, a condition that 80 percent of us can expect to suffer from at some point in our lives. After years of attempting expensive surgeries that fail to bring relief and prescribing pharmaceuticals that have contributed to an epidemic of opioid abuse, more clinicians are now recommending
alternative medicine first.
[Read: “Physical and Spiritual Benefits of the MA-Style Roller for Back Pain.”]
One of these treatments is dry needling, an approach that may not sound appealing right off the bat. But for those suffering from chronic back issues, this alternative approach to pain relief and limited mobility has been a saving grace. It has also raised some interesting questions about the role of alternative treatments in mainstream medicine.
What Is Dry Needling?
Dry needling dates back to the 1940s when physician and muscular pain researcher Dr. Janet Travell
introduced the concepts of myofascial pain and “trigger points” (or sensitive points on the muscle). Travell found that by inserting extremely thin needles into aggravated muscle tissues and moving them around, she could help reduce her patients’ musculoskeletal pain.
The movement of the needle is the key in dry needling.
It allows the practitioner to elicit a visible local twitch response (LTR) in the problematic muscle. Patients often say the twitch feels like a “cramp” or “spasm,” but that it doesn’t hurt much, or for long.
The needles are called “dry” simply because they contain no anesthetic. They are the same tools used by acupuncturists, which has led to more than a little controversy about how original the technique really is. But despite its similarity to acupuncture at first glance, dry needling is a service offered by a subset of licensed physical therapists and chiropractors who have received specific training in the technique.
How Does Dry Needling Differ From Acupuncture?
According to Kara Johnson, a physical therapist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, while both dry needling and acupuncture use a solid filament needle, “how they use the needle and where they place the needle are quite different.” But perhaps most importantly, Johnson notes, “dry needling is only one component of a comprehensive therapy program provided by a physical therapist with the ultimate goal of restoring function.”
The American Medical Association’s Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) recognizes
dry needling as a treatment modality. And yet, there are laws prohibiting dry needling in six states: California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington. Essentially, these states have prohibited the name rather than the practice, deeming the procedure “acupuncture,” which must be performed by a licensed acupuncturist—not a physical therapist or chiropractor.
People in pain care little about professional boundaries or the dividing lines between Eastern and Western medicine. It only becomes relevant because Western modalities are often covered by health insurance, while Eastern-based practices typically are not. Eastern medicine-based acupuncturists have a lot to lose when mainstream Western practitioners start to practice a similar technique.
The Piercing Psychological Toll of Back Pain
Perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of back pain is the psychological toll it can take on us. Seventy-two percent of chronic back pain sufferers report feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or hopelessness that have interfered with their lives. They experience other psychological distress as well, including anger and depression. As an added insult, depression can make chronic pain worse, creating a vicious cycle.
[Read: “Releasing the Emotional Roots of Back Pain.”]
For roughly 85 percent of back pain sufferers, pain is “non-specific”—meaning the cause is unknown. The pain is real and frustrating, but there’s no obvious issue to repair. Finding a practitioner you trust to perform dry needling and possibly unlock the secrets that may be hidden deep in the muscles may be just what you need to finally move the needle on your back pain.