Dry Needling…Not a Type of Craft that Your Grandmother Does

Name: Katherine Koch

Undergrad: The Ohio State University

Hometown: Cleveland, OH

Fun Fact: Last summer, I climbed six 14ers

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Dry needlingnot a type of craft that your grandmother does. This type of treatment uses thin filiform needles inserted by a physical therapist into myofascial trigger points, or a tight band of muscle that might be causing pain (1). Dry needling is based on physiological evidence supported by research that is usually part of a broader treatment plan (2). If this needling sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Acupuncturists use the same type of needle to adjust the flow of energy, or chi, throughout meridians in the body. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine and operates based on the belief that these thin needles can relieve tension, stress, and pain when inserted by an acupuncturist (3). While you won’t be getting an itchy sweater from this treatment, it can lead to pain relief for many people. 

However, there is still confusion and debate among physical therapists and acupuncturists concerning the rights and responsibilities of physical therapists in performing dry needling on their patients. This debate of dry needling by physical therapists was recently taken to a Denver district court when the Acupuncture Association of Colorado (AAC) challenged the Colorado State Physical Therapy Board (Board). The AAC claimed that physical therapists had not undergone enough training to perform dry needling and requested the Board reverse the rule that allows physical therapists to practice this method of treatment. The AAC argued that physical therapists only perform 46 hours of training to be certified to practice dry needling, while acupuncturists train for almost 2,000 hours. The association claimed this made dry needling by physical therapists an “unsafe practice of acupuncture” (4). However, this statement is strongly misleading due to the additional 3,400 hours of doctorate level schooling that physical therapists already have behind them before they complete those 46 hours specific to dry needling training. Physical therapists spend three years in graduate school learning how the human body works, what can go wrong with it, and how to fix it within the realm of physical therapy. Additionally, doctors of physical therapy are required to take continuing education courses throughout their careers.

Additionally, the AAC made the claim that dry needling is just a misnomer for acupuncture, while the two are fundamentally different practices. They may look similar to the untrained recipient, but physical therapists and acupuncturists perform their respective treatments with fundamental ideological differences between the two. This is not to say that one is better than the other, and patients may make the informed autonomous decision to receive either or both treatments. However, as the Denver District Court decided, there is no need to prevent members of one profession from performing treatments all together. In December 2017, the court recognized that physical therapists are acting within the Colorado Physical Therapy Practice Act when they perform dry needling.

As the Colorado Chapter of the APTA President Cameron MacDonald put so eloquently,

“this legal debate was brought forth by those who wished to restrict the practice of another profession from their own. This debate could have been about any intervention utilized by physical therapists, and not just dry needling. It is imperative to consider this legal challenge and the lawsuits brought against the Colorado PT Board through the lens of the Colorado consumer of healthcare. Consumers in Colorado are provided access to health care providers which have a defined scope of practice under which to deliver patient care. Health care professionals are expected to provide the best care they can, and to practice under a scope flexible enough to both protect the consumer and not limit the development of practice by health care providers.”

When physical therapists perform dry needling, they are practicing within their professional scope. When acupuncturists perform acupuncture, they are practicing within their professional scope. Both professions can live harmoniously alongside each other while helping patients within their respective realms.

Why does any of this matter? First, any judicial ruling or legislative rule concerning a profession as a whole likely has implications that affect many of its members. In this case, physical therapists that perform dry needling in Colorado were in danger of losing their legal right to treat patients in this way. Further, patients were in danger of losing out on a treatment that can benefit them. To be effective health care providers, it is imperative that physical therapists are informed practitioners in order to best advocate for their profession and best treat their patients. Denying to inform themselves and take positive action does a disservice to future physical therapists and patients who will benefit from the work done to advance the profession today. In order to practice as autonomous providers, physical therapists must continue to advocate for their profession and understand the issues surrounding it. It also stands to reason that since the American Physical Therapy Association participated in this case as an amicus party and presented information that no doubt helped sway the case, physical therapists should support and be members of the organization that advocates for them on this broad level.

This debate is not in Colorado alone; lawsuits in three states have gone the opposite way and the state boards have been forced to remove dry needling provisions from their practice acts.4 Since each state has their own physical therapy act, it is important that the Colorado practice act, which will be revised next year, continues to maintain its inclusive language that provides “for new developments in physical therapy practice, which includes dry needling” (Caplan and Earnest, LLC, personal communication, January 9, 2018). For the good of physical therapists, patients, and the future of physical therapy as a profession, this particular case is closed.


If you are a student physical therapist, like myself, who hopes to perform dry needling as a professional one day or if you simply would like to learn more about its practice, please refer to the references below.

  1. Dry Needling by a Physical Therapist: What You Should Know. American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.moveforwardpt.com/Resources/Detail/dry-needling-by-physical-therapist-what-you-should. Published December 25, 2017. Accessed January 28, 2018.
  2. Gattie E, Cleland JA, Snodgrass S. The Effectiveness of Trigger Point Dry Needling for Musculoskeletal Conditions by Physical Therapists: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2017;:1-41.
  3. Miller J. Physio Works – Physiotherapy Brisbane. Acupuncture and Dry Needling. https://physioworks.com.au/treatments-1/acupuncture-and-dry-needling. Accessed January 28, 2018.
  4. Migoya D. Acupuncturists sue Colorado’s physical therapy board over the very definition of their craft. The Denver Post. https://www.denverpost.com/2017/04/05/acupuncturists-sue-board/. Published April 7, 2017. Accessed January 28, 2018.

Direct Access: Insight into Some of the Barriers and Current Initiatives

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Blogger: Katie Baratta

My name is Katie Baratta and I just graduated from the Regis University School of Physical Therapy. I had the opportunity to spend two weeks at the APTA doing a student internship. I was able to talk to many different members of the APTA, attend the Federal Advocacy Forum, and learn more about what the APTA has been doing to move our profession forward. I’ve written a series of essays about my experiences here at the Association.

I met with Wanda Evans PT, MHS, CKTP (Senior Payment Specialist) and Elise Latawiec MPH, PT (Senior Specialist, Practice Management) who provided me with their insider understanding on this topic as well as directed me toward further resources.

Direct access physical therapy care means that a patient does not require a referral from a physician or other provider prior to a PT evaluation and/or treatment. All graduating Physical Therapists are required to have a DPT–a clinical doctorate–and, thus, they receive extensive training in the ability to recognize “red flags” and refer patients to the appropriate provider when it becomes apparent that the patient may be at risk for something more severe than musculoskeletal involvement.  Studies demonstrate that direct access decreases the time following an injury to the start of the patient’s PT care, reduces the number of visits of therapy needed and results in lower overall costs. Thus, PTs are not only appropriate for this role, but they can end up saving time, money, and patient suffering (as well as costs for the healthcare system overall).

Legislation

There are currently various types of direct access in all 50 states. Each state has jurisdiction over its own Practice Act, which is why there is some discrepancy from one state to another (state-by-state comparison). There are 18 states with unrestricted direct access—this includes Colorado! Some states require specific certification for a PT to provide direct access care, and others allow only an initial evaluation plus a set number of follow-up visits before the PT must contact the patient’s primary care provider. States with limitations in their practice act for direct access are fighting every day for legislative changes to eliminate these barriers; the APTA is aware of this and is actively assisting in these state-level legislative efforts.

However, the legal foundation is only the first step to getting patients the direct access care that we know would be beneficial. Common barriers to direct access that PTs reported in an APTA survey last year include reimbursement concerns, limitations in marketing, fear of alienating referral sources, restrictions by the PT’s employer, and lack of knowledge of state direct access laws.

Reimbursement                                      

Historically, third-party payers (ie insurance companies) have required a referral from a physician or other designated professional. Aside from Medicare/Medicaid and other federal programs like the VA or Armed Services (which have their own regulations on Direct Access), insurance policies vary by carrier and on a state-to-state basis. As the state legislation changes, the payers have been slowly adapting, with some payers more progressive than others in regards to reimbursement for direct access services. The APTA has been engaging with payers directly to eliminate the referral requirement at events such as the Insurance Forum, in comment letters, during in-person meetings, and in their day-to-day contacts. The APTA communicates this message to large employers who create their own insurance policies for their employees, as well, and are thus able to help employers set the terms of the insurance contract for their employees independently.

How can individual APTA members get involved on the reimbursement front? Each state chapter has a Reimbursement Chair.  The Chair’s responsibilities include learning as much as possible about trends with different payers in that state (and taking note if a lot of PTs have been reaching out with similar issues or complaints regarding the same payer) and assisting those therapists within their own state. The APTA nationally works in conjunction with the state chapters on payment/insurance issues and helps to connect states together when confronted with similar challenges. Patients and their advocates can also petition their Insurance Commissioner if they are inappropriately denied care or access to medically necessary services. The Insurance Commissioner advocates for consumers; s/he does not represent the insurance carrier.

Fear of alienating referral sources

Wanda and Elise described several studies in which direct access evidenced no negative impact on the physician-patient relationship. In fact, a key component of direct access is the necessity of PTs to refer patients to the appropriate provider when a patient’s symptoms and underlying pathologies are outside of our scope of practice. Given that PTs must make referrals back to other providers, it becomes a mutually beneficial relationship amongst different healthcare practitioners.

Education

A lot of concern stems from a a lack of education on the part of employers, insurers and potential patients. PTs need to demonstrate their clinical excellence to, essentially, prove that we are worthy of this responsibility, as well as to continue to educate all stakeholders on the importance and benefit of getting PT before medication/surgery. The first step for every PT is to become educated on what your state’s practice act specifically says about direct access and understand any limitations that may be in effect.  Educating patients, employers, and other healthcare practitioners is the next step. The APTA has developed many resources detailing the benefits and safety of direct access available online (more info).

Resistance to Change or Pushing for Progress?

There are some PTs who are more comfortable in the traditional referral arrangement than with unrestricted direct access. They may not want the additional responsibility, or they may simply prefer to do what they have always done.  That is okay!  Nobody is looking to force them to become direct access providers.

However, if you are one of the PTs who cares about the transition toward direct access and autonomy as a practitioner, make sure you’re an active member of the APTA! This is essential to better educate yourself, your patients, and other healthcare providers and to develop a strong voice with your state chapter and insurance agencies.

For more information on the current APTA involvement, as well as additional resources, check out its Direct Access page.