Fairbanks physical therapists have recently expanded into a type of needle treatment that’s traditionally more associated with the realm of acupuncture than physical therapy.

Like acupuncturists, physical therapists who practice dry needling poke through their patient’s skin with thin needles in an effort to relieve pain or cure other maladies. But the two disciplines base the treatment on different theories. Acupuncture teaching comes from an ancient Chinese practice of using needles to balance a type of energy known as chi. Dry needling is based on a 20th century physical therapy theory known as trigger points, sensitive points that refer pain to other parts of the body when triggered. 

In Fairbanks, dry needling practice is in its infancy. North Pole physical therapist Julie Ament started using the treatment January 2013 after getting training from dry needling pioneer Yun-Tao Ma in Colorado. She was one of the first Interior physical therapists to offer the treatment. 

Today, at least four Interior physical therapy clinics offer dry needling. Fairbanks clinic Advanced Physical Therapy will host a training this summer for therapists who want to learn the practice

Ament uses the technique mainly to treat lower back pain, but has also used it for shoulder pain, neck pain, Plantar fasciitis (heel pain) and jaw pain. Although the practice started by using needles to target trigger points, physical therapists now use the needles for additional therapies.

“Trigger point is just one sort of dry needling. A lot of people use trigger points in their theory of dry needling, but it goes beyond that,” Ament said. “We use those real thin needles to penetrate the skin and stimulate nerves, muscles or connective tissues.”

In general, more patients today are familiar with and comfortable with needles because of their experience with either acupuncturists or osteopathic doctors, she said.   

Dry needling entered the world of physical therapy recently. The practice traces its roots to the “wet needling” of British doctor John Kellgren. In the 1930s, Kellgren injected patients with a painkiller at sensitive referral points. Later, practitioners began using “dry needles” without injecting anything. The first practitioners used hallow hypodermic needles. Now it’s more common for physical therapists to use the solid needles used by acupuncturists.  

Maryland-based physical therapist Jan Dommerholt says he taught the first dry needling class for U.S. physical therapists in 1997, according to physical therapy trade magazine PT In Motion. A May 2015 magazine article estimated there are thousands of physical therapists who use dry needling today. 

Elsewhere, acupuncturists and physical therapists have fought bitterly over claims that dry needling intrudes too much into the territory of acupuncture. For example, in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Society of Certified Acupuncturists devotes parts of its website to a campaign against dry needling in a section titled “The Illegal and Unsafe Practice of Acupuncture Under the Term ‘Dry Needling.’” 

This fight is one reason only about half the U.S. states explicitly permit physical therapists to perform dry needling, PT In Motion reported. 

Alaska is one of the states where physical therapists are authorized to use dry needling. 

 Ament said she hasn’t seen much conflict between physical therapists and acupuncturists over dry needling in the Interior. 

“In Fairbanks, we are respectful of each other’s different knowledge base and there are plenty of patients who will benefit from acupuncture and dry needling, so I do not see a turf war. The more people who get better using needles in their care, the more people there are to treat.” 

Fairbanks acupuncturist Stephanie Maggard shares this sentiment. Maggard owns Fairbanks clinic AcuTribe Health Wellness and is a member of the The Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Association of Alaska. 

Dry needling came up this year at the professional association’s meeting. The members decided against fighting the use of dry needling in Alaska, she said.  

“We decided that wasn’t the stand that we wanted to take,” she said. “So many of us are friends with PT people, our peers here in town. We really want to work together on what’s going to be best for the patient.”

Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter:

@FDNMoutdoors.