Pain management methods like dry needling are popular choices for many people since they do not carry the same risks as a prescription pain-reliever might. However, it’s important to understand the purpose and practice of dry needling in order to determine if it’s a treatment that will fit your needs or if it will be eligible for coverage through Medicare.

Differences Between Dry Needling and Acupuncture

At a glance, the practice of dry needling looks much like traditional Chinese acupuncture. Both use very small needles that are inserted into the skin along defined trigger points, but the targeted reason and desired results of each treatment differ. The guiding theory of acupuncture focuses on the flow of energy through the whole body. Dry needling is believed to relieve cramps and pain in the muscles and connective tissues being treated by releasing naturally occurring opioids within the body or by disrupting neurophysiological feedback between the body and the brain.

Practitioners may use the same filiform needles made for acupuncture, or they may choose to use hollow hypodermic needle points, instead. A practitioner may favor one over the other if they feel the needle is able to penetrate what they call a dense contraction knot without causing their patient any additional discomfort.

Another notable difference between these two practices is the role of the practitioner and how the treatment is regulated. Currently, an acupuncturist is a heavily regulated title that requires extensive training and strict certification standards that are common across the nation. The standards that determine who can administer dry needling treatments receive less oversight and states do not have comparable licensing requirements.

Side Effects and Risks Associated with Dry Needling

Because there is less oversight over practitioners of dry needling, there may be a higher risk of malpractice and mistakes during a dry needling session. Improperly sterilized or inserted needles can cause infection or tissue and nerve damage. While some moderate discomfort at the site of insertion should be expected in a well-controlled session, clients should be wary of any treatment that causes intense or prolonged pain.

Studies measuring the impact that dry needling has on relieving muscular pain and other symptoms are limited and considered largely inconclusive. Anecdotal evidence from clients is likewise mixed. As a relatively new practice with an experimental theory, more rigorous research is needed to provide better context for the results clients and practitioners claim this procedure can produce.

Medicare Coverage for Dry Needling                 

At present, Original Medicare benefits do not cover dry needling treatments. This is likely due to the lack of research around the practice and the lack of oversight for its practitioners. Because Part C private insurers who offer Medicare Advantage plans have the freedom to offer additional benefits, you may want to check your plan to find out about coverage for alternative treatments such as dry needling.

Dual-eligibles who receive coverage through Medicare and Medicaid can often find many services are covered under Medicaid that Original Medicare does not provide, but dry needling is not currently Medicaid-approved. Coverage terms can change each year, which means recipients should continue to check their policies for changes that may include services that were not previously covered the year before.

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