Is Acupuncture Safe?

An alternative therapy dating back to the days of ancient China, acupuncture is a practice that has had a substantial presence in the Western world in the 20th century. Surrounding the practice is a great deal of controversy around its effectiveness in treating the many conditions that acupuncturists purport to be able to treat. In this article we look at one of the major concerns surrounding acupuncture, the question of safety.

Safe acupuncture practices

Considering the fact that the practice of acupuncture basically involves the application of needles of various sizes, shapes, and thicknesses to points across the length of the body, it should come as no surprise that many people are often concerned by the safety of the practice. The consensus across the world is that in the hands of a trained, qualified, and experienced acupuncturist needles can be applied safely.

The BMJ (British Medical journal) published investigations into the safety of acupuncture in 2001, and found that the risk of side effects as a consequence of acupuncture treatment were about 1 in every 10,000 treatments. This study was followed up in 2003 to yield similar figures, which are in truth about the same if not better than many traditional treatments. Side effect reported as a consequence of vaccination are reported more often in about 1 in 100 to 1 in 10,000 cases.

There are important considerations to the safe application of acupuncture which should be taken into account by acupuncturists. The sterility of needles is a perfect example. Anything used for an invasive treatment like acupuncture should be carefully sterilised to prevent any accidental infection.

The use of the appropriate needles in terms of their size is also important. Acupuncture points in parts of the body rich in vital organs need to be treated with care to prevent any accidental puncture or injury. For example, short, fine needles are usually used to treat the region around the kidney as any accidental injury to the kidney can have serious consequences.

Ultimately the important point about safe acupuncture practice is the qualification and standards of the acupuncturist his or herself. Unfortunately acupuncture is not subject to legally necessary regulation from independent authorities, however there are organisations which offer acupuncturist membership provided they have achieved certain qualifications and practice to high standards. Checking that an acupuncturist is a member of these societies, which include the British Acupuncture Council, is a good way to determine his or her quality.

Risks of acupuncture

Most of the risks carried by acupuncture are only an issue when a practitioner is insufficiently trained or experienced. The most serious risks involve the possibility of infection through inadequately sterilised needles or treatment in an unhygienic environment. For safety reasons, acupuncture needles must be sterile and either disposable or only reused after an appropriate sterilisation procedure (like autoclaving).

Minor side effects are sometimes reported after acupuncture, and these are usually evidenced at sites of needle injection. For example about 3% of cases will report a small degree of bleeding, and a similar number will report pain or blood blistering. About 1in every 100 patients may become slightly dizzy during a treatment. 

The most serious risks associated with acupuncture, and which are almost exclusively the consequence of inadequate training and experience, are organ damage as a result of incorrect needle insertion. A review published in 2010 showed that about 86 deaths occurred as a consequence of acupuncture every year, and these were most commonly due to pneumothorax, a consequence of needle insertion into the space between the lungs and surrounding lung cavity. Again however, most of these were reported from poorly qualified practitioners, particularly in countries in Asia where there is no substantial regulation of the practice or acupuncturist training.

Acupuncture should not be used on anyone suffering from a bleeding disorder, or who is taking a medication that affects the consistency of blood (e.g. blood thinning drugs). In these instances, acupuncture wounds are likely to bleed profusely, which poses all manner of risks including an increased chance of infection.

As mentioned above, the best way to ensure the safety of an acupuncture session is by making sure that your acupuncturist is qualified enough to perform the treatment. Members of professional organisations are usually not only appropriately qualified, but must also adhere to certain standards stipulated by the organisation in question.

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