When April Ralph was referred to Advantage Physical Therapy and Wellness in Durango last summer, she had aching pain down her left leg.
To ease it, her physical therapist, Kolten Tea, used dry needles to help loosen the deep muscles in her lower back and thigh, in addition to other exercises.
After inserting the needles, Tea sent a low electrical current through the needle to the muscles for about 30 seconds. “You can feel the muscle twitching through the needle, and when it twitches it means that muscle is dysfunctional and it needs to be reset,” he said during a recent demonstration.
The electrical current helps reset communication between the nerve and the muscle.
“It’s the best way to get to that depth. No matter how hard I push with my thumbs, I can’t get that deep,” he said.
It doesn’t hurt and it relieved Ralph’s pain in her leg, back and shoulder, she said. “I would go home and feel pretty wiped out, but the next day, I would feel way better,” she said.
The therapy has gained popularity with physical therapists over the last six or seven years, Tea said. In addition to the success he and his colleagues have seen in their practice, there have been numerous studies showing the effectiveness of the treatments, he said.
In particular, it helps patients suffering chronic pain who have used only medication to ease their discomfort.
“This is one of the things that has really made a big, lasting difference for them, so they can get off some of these hard drugs,” he said.
Some acupuncturists argue that physical therapists are infringing on their field.
“It’s the same thing; they just changed the name,” said Todd Flemion, owner of Root and Branch Medicine. He practices oriental medicine and acupuncture in Durango.
Acupuncturists are also worried that physical therapists do not have enough training to practice safely.
Licensed acupuncturists typically receive between 1,500 to 2,000 hours of training, according to the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. In Colorado, physical therapists must have 46 hours of training in dry needling.
Kimberley Benjamin, president of Acupuncture Association of Colorado, says training requirements for physical therapists should be increased. When it is not done properly, dry needling can puncture lungs, injure joints, create more long-term pain and cause other problems, she said.
Tea and others at Advantage Physical Therapy and Wellness said they went to school for seven years to become certified in their field. They said they have extensive knowledge of the human anatomy and know how to safely use dry needling techniques.
A review by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy found that physical therapists are taught 86 percent of what they need to know to be competent at dry needling during their clinical education.
Another criticism of dry needling is its aggressive nature compared to acupuncturists, Benjamin said.
In general, she said she tries to start with the least invasive treatment, but she does practice deep needling.
In December, the Acupuncture Association of Colorado and the Colorado Safe Acupuncture Association filed a legal challenge aimed at repealing the Colorado Physical Therapy Board’s rule allowing physical therapists to practice acupuncture.
Several states, including Washington and New York, have prohibited physical therapists from practicing dry needling.
Tea said the issue has become more politicized in recent years, but he would like to see acupuncturists and physical therapists work together when they have the same patients.
But Flemion is concerned that those who have bad experiences with dry needling won’t want to try traditional acupuncture. “I feel very protective of a 5,000-year-old tradition,” he said.