Acupuncture Treatment Is Safe

Sept. 4, 2001 -- Acupuncture is a relatively safe form of treatment, according to two studies published in the Sept. 1 issue of the British Medical Journal.

"The popularity of acupuncture has been growing hugely in recent years, and people are asking, 'Is it safe?'" says Hugh MacPherson, PhD, lead author of one of the papers. "Our survey looked at a very large sample and found no serious adverse events." MacPherson is the research director of the Foundation for Traditional Chinese Medicine in York, England.

In this study, British acupuncturists mailed in a report of any problems occurring during or immediately after acupuncture treatment. They reported on more than 34,000 treatments during one month in 2000 and found no serious problems.

"Comparison of the adverse event rate for acupuncture with those of drugs routinely prescribed in primary care suggests that acupuncture is a relatively safe form of treatment," the authors write.

"For example, many people use acupuncture for chronic pain," MacPherson says. "When you look at nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, which are medications commonly used for chronic pain, you find gastrointestinal complications which can lead to death."

In the second study, 78 doctors and physiotherapists recorded any problems between June 1998 and February 2000. They reported no serious problems and 671 minor problems, such as bleeding or pain when a needle was inserted, per 10,000 acupuncture treatments.

"I'm very pleased to see this sort of research being done," says David L. Boyd, PhD, LAc. "Everything about acupuncture needs to be researched very carefully to separate fact from fiction." Boyd is executive director of the center for health and healing at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles and serves on the National Commission for Acupressure and Oriental Medicine.

"Non-physician acupuncturists are the fastest-growing category of health professionals in the United States, says James Dillard, MD, DC, LAc. "People are looking for alternatives to surgery and conventional drugs because they are concerned about adverse reactions and side effects and prefer a gentler form of treatment." Dillard is the author of Alternative Medicine for Dummies.

Available research indicates that acupuncture is particularly effective in treating pain and nausea, Dillard says.

"The best papers have been done on arthritis, facial pain, low back pain, and nausea," he says. "Other conditions have not been well researched, so we don't have the data yet to know whether acupuncture could be effective."

While acupuncture is generally a safe procedure, the studies did find occasional minor problems, such as needles left in patients by mistake, headaches after treatment, and drowsiness.

"Acupuncture needles are so tiny, sometimes you don't see them," Boyd says. "At our hospital we are requiring needle counts before and after treatment to prevent this problem."

Every person reacts to treatment differently, MacPherson says. Most often people feel energized or relaxed.

"However, some people do feel drowsy or dizzy. These are quite normal reactions and may simply indicate the treatment is having a positive effect on the patient's problem. Of course, if you're feeling dizzy or drowsy, you should stay in the doctor's waiting room for a few minutes before you drive home," he says.