Written by: Savannah Holt, 1st Year SPT
Imagine this. You are about to start your second semester of physical therapy school. You get an email just a few days before the semester starts, notifying you that you will be given an introduction to dry needling in your first class at 8:00 am on Monday morning, and soon after you will begin practicing dry needling. You might think, “That’s insane!” or “There’s no chance that they are teaching dry needling to first year PT students.”, and you’d be right about one thing, it is insane, but that is exactly what happened in Peter Claver Hall on January 10th, 2022 for the Regis University DPT class of 2024.
This is monumental for the framework of teaching dry needling to physical therapists in the future, but this did not just happen overnight. This was a long thought out process and plan by the faculty of the Regis DPT program, headed by Dr. Stephanie Albin PT, DPT, Ph.D. and Dr. Cameron MacDonald PT, DPT. Not only did this involve reworking the curriculum to accommodate this new training, but it started with changing the Colorado legislature, not an easy feat.
“We’re better together!” – Dr Sharon Dunn PT OCS PhD, Past-President of APTA National
Dry needling was introduced to physical therapy practice about 20 years ago, with the state of Colorado recognizing dry needling as a modality around the year 2005. There was not a board at the time to regulate dry needling, so the continuing education instructors that taught dry needling were asked about how to safely regulate the use of dry needling in practice. In doing so, these instructors decided that the safest way to regulate dry needling was by not allowing physical therapists to integrate dry needling into their practice until they had two-years of experience working as a clinician. Changing this two-year gap regulation of dry needling was the “final hurdle” to overcome before being able to teach dry needling as a part of the DPT curriculum, according to Dr. MacDonald.
There was also a discussion between physical therapists and acupuncturists that had to be resolved before physical therapists could retain the right to implement dry needling into practice. While both professions are using a filament to evoke healing, there is a distinct and fundamental difference in the utilization of the filament. Dr. Dunn triumphantly said, “We’re better together!” It does not have to be a fight between us and them, and trust me, I should know, I am the daughter of an acupuncturist (but that’s a story for another time). In the effort to resolve this battle, dry needling became just as much a part of physical therapy as therapeutic exercise and manual therapy.
Once dry needling was defined as an integral part of physical therapy, and the legislation changed to remove the 2 year gap period between graduation and being able to incorporate dry needling into practice, the question became, “how do we integrate the teaching of dry needling into the DPT curriculum?” Well, 13 curriculum change proposals later, Cameron and Stephanie finally had the approval of the Regis DPT curriculum board and got the okay to begin teaching. Their plan has been built as a 3 year pilot program focused on the learning experience of the DPT class of 2024. By graduation, the students will have enough hours of experience in dry needling to practice dry needling level 1 immediately post-graduation.
While the original goal of this pilot program was to safely incorporate dry needling into the DPT curriculum, a longer term, national goal has arisen from this plan. The hope now is that this pilot program educates more practitioners that will then take this skill and this knowledge with them post-graduation. With students coming to Regis from all over the country, the assumption is that the students will return to their home states and push for changes in legislation that will allow for a more uniform practice of dry needling throughout our nation; that this pilot program will be incorporated in more institutions, so that more practitioners have access to the practice of dry needling, and more patients are able to access this intervention if it is deemed appropriate for their care.
From the class of 2024, thank you to Dr. Stephanie Albin PT, DPT, Ph.D., Dr. Larissa Hoffman PT, Ph.D., and Dr. Cameron MacDonald PT, DPT for pushing for this change to give us the opportunity to learn such a critical skill so early on in our careers, and thank you for your continued work and research in this field to educate not only us as students, but the entire physical therapy community on such an important intervention technique.