Acupuncture Gone Wrong: Adverse Effects

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Acupuncture Gone Wrong


People can get a bit freaked out by the thought of acupuncture. I get it. It’s needles, right? From back when we were kids getting vaccinated right through to giving blood as an adult, nobody likes it. Even though it’s totally different, those feelings remain for a lot of people. But can acupuncture be bad for you? Let’s talk about acupuncture gone wrong.

Firstly, I’ll say this: acupuncture doesn’t usually hurt. Check out something else I’ve written about that:

When we talk about adverse effects, that’s when people experience a negative effect from the acupuncture. Most treatment modalities can have some sort of adverse effect, like surgery may lead to infection or haemorrhage; or taking aspirin can upset your stomach or give you heartburn. That’s not to say that taking aspirin or having surgery is bad. It’s just that when we look at treatments for health problems we want to know about the bad as well as good things that could happen in order to make informed choices.

Acupuncture has been known to have a few adverse effects, and they’re typically mild. We’re talking about a bruise, raised spot or maybe a spot of blood* at the site of needling. There have been a few more serious ones, though.

The first is called a vasovagal reaction, where people can get dizzy, nauseous or sometimes faint. Some people can experience this at the sight of blood, or with needles generally. The good news is that you’re already lying down, so you won’t fall over or anything, and there’s no lasting issues.

The other big one is called a pneumothorax. That means that a bit of air gets in between the lung and the wall of the cavity it’s in and the lung collapses. Obviously, this can be dangerous and needs medical attention, although sometimes it can spontaneously rectify itself. Most of the time when this happens its from needling too deeply in the wrong spot. It’s likely a reflection of poor or inadequate training on the part of the acupuncturist.

Now you’re saying “I don’t want that to happen! How likely is that to happen to me if I get acupuncture?” The answer, thankfully, is not very likely at all.

A study was done in Germany about acupuncture gone wrong (Melchart et al., 2004). They took info from over 97000 patients. That’s over 760000 individual treatments. Literally millions of needles. How many pneumothorax events? Two. How many vasovagal reactions? Just one.

That study used doctors with a minimum of 140 hours of acupuncture training. Here in Australia a registered acupuncturist needs to have completed a four-year bachelor’s degree, way more than 140 hours. (Remember what I said about inadequate training?)

What about all that other bruising and stuff? Well, 7.1% of patients reported one of those. If that sounds like a lot, compare it with a trial on aspirin, where 18% of participants reported an adverse gastro-intestinal effect (Silagy et al., 1993). Yes, that’s right, aspirin. Not something people would consider a risky medication.

So, if you’re thinking about acupuncture, but are worried about adverse effects, worry no more!


*No, it doesn’t come fountaining out. It’s too small a hole. We’re talking a spot the size of a small freckle.

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MELCHART, D., WEIDENHAMMER, W., STRENG, A., REITMAYR, S., HOPPE, A., ERNST, E. & LINDE, K. 2004. Prospective investigation of adverse effects of acupuncture in 97 733 patients. Archives of Internal Medicine, 164, 104-5.

SILAGY, C. A., MCNEIL, J. J., DONNAN, G. A., TONKIN, A. M., WORSAM, B. & CAMPION, K. 1993. Adverse effects of low-dose aspirin in a healthy elderly population. Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 54, 84-89.

Acupuncture Gone Wrong

Acupuncture gone wrong

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