Infection risk with acupuncture

Acupuncture is fundamentally an invasive treatment which involves penetrating the skin, and therefore carries with it many of the infectious risks associated with any and all invasive procedures. The relationship between infection and acupuncture has become a major concern more recently following a report in 2010 which suggested that the incidence of acupuncture-associated infections was much higher than previously reported, particularly in Asian countries like China where acupuncture is extremely popular and not subject to regulation.

Infections caused by acupuncture

The aforementioned review published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2010 paint a detailed picture of infection as a result of acupuncture since the 1970s. The report states that most of the infections that occur as a consequence of acupuncture (about 70%) affect the skin, muscle, or underlying tissues. Infections affecting these parts of the body can be fatal for between 5 and 10% of sufferers, while a further 10% might suffer a more widespread infection and more serious health consequences.

Hepatitis B was highlighted by the report as one of the major infections of concern associated with acupuncture. This infection is most often transferred through shared needles or needles that have not been adequately sterilised. Hep B is an extremely infectious viral infection which most particularly affects the liver, the condition can be serious and in severe cases, life threatening.

What can be done to reduce the incidences of infection caused by acupuncture?

While there is a risk of infection associated with acupuncture because of the nature of the procedure, this risk is one that can be offset by taking particular safety measures. Qualified and trained acupuncturists should be aware of these measures, which makes taking up the services of  such a practitioner an important step. These measures include:

  • Needle sterilisation: All needles should be sterilised and either of the disposable single use variety, or a type that can be reused following the appropriate sterilisation procedures. If a needle falls into the latter category, care should be taken to treat the needle properly, for example, through the use of an autoclave (specialised equipment designed to sterilise).
  • Infection control measures: These are simple steps taken prior to the insertion and after the removal of needles. They are followed by medical staff when administering injections for example, or virtually any other invasive procedure that requires a break in skin to be made. These include disinfecting the site of injection prior to applying a needle, and performing the procedure in a hygienic and aseptic environment.

Many of these standards are required for membership into organisations like the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), and emphasises the importance of such professional bodies in practices like acupuncture here in the UK.

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