Risks and side effects of acupuncture

Because acupuncture involves the insertion of needles, albeit especially fine ones, into the skin, many people are understandably concerned about the safety of the practice. In this article we look at the potential risks and side effects associated with acupuncture.

Risks and side effects

In the hands of an experienced acupuncturist, the practice itself is quite safe and known for few side effects if any at all. Risks become more of a concern when a practitioner without the necessary experience or training is involved. In these cases the most common side effects are:

-Pain when the needle is passed through the skin. Experienced acupuncturists pass the needle through quickly, and as we only experience pain in the outermost layers of skin, quick applications can be pain free.

- Bleeding or bruising evident after a needle has been administered. The needles used are very fine, and as such any bleeding should be minimal.

-Drowsiness has been reported in some cases.

- Increase in severity of the symptom for which you are being treated. For example if you are receiving treatment for back pain, in some cases this can be worsened if needles are applied poorly.

In very, very rare incidences accidentally applying a needle too deep into a particular area has caused more serious injury, and these events are thought to occur in 5 of every million acupuncture sessions. Serious injury is associated with unqualified practitioners, which is why it is important that you check up on the qualifications of any acupuncturist whose services you intend to engage.

In these cases where a needle is improperly administered, the potential for nerve damage or accidental injury to a major organ can be high. For example pneumothorax, the presence of a dangerous air bubble between the lung and chest wall, can form as a result of accidental penetration of a needle into the chest cavity. Pneumothorax can be dangerous as it obstructs normal breathing and constitutes a medical emergency.  If a needle passes too deeply into an organ like the heart, kidney, or brain, the consequences can be fatal.

One of the risks associated with acupuncture is that of infection. Whenever any foreign object is used to pierce the skin and enter the tissues underneath it there is a risk of infection, and the needles used in acupuncture most certainly fall under this category. Care must be taken by practitioners to ensure that any and all needles are properly sterilised to prevent any infection from occurring.

The best way to avoid some of the risks associated with acupuncture is to ensure that your practitioner is appropriately qualified and experienced. Finding out if they are registered with a professional standards organisation like the British Acupuncture Council ,for example, is a good way to ensure the quality of acupuncturists. That being said, not all qualified acupuncturists are necessarily registered with a professional standards body as in the UK practitioners are not legally required to register with any kind of regulatory body.

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