Peril By Puncture

July 19, 2012

Acupuncture 101

Here’s a common question/lingering fear/excuse for berating my profession:


And that’s completely legit. You should be asking that question. After all, we are dealing with the combination of needles and skin. Still, I have seen the “dangers” of acupuncture presented so far out of proportion that there is a common school of thought that believes acupuncture is never worth trying (no matter how desperate you are for something to make you feel better). But, can it really be worse that the “common” side effects of things like cortisol, immunosuppressants, hormone regulators, beta blockers and statins that are prescribed so regularly?

So let’s just get it right out in the open. Here are the top risks lists as reasons you should be wary of acupuncture:

  1. Fainting
  2. Local hematoma (i.e. bruising)
  3. Local infections (at the site of the needle)
  4. Punctured organ (lung, heart, liver, spleen)
  5. Nerve damage
  6. Systemic infections (like hepatitis B) from non-sterile needles

First off, numbers 1-3. They can and do happen. I have been an acupuncture patient for 5 years and though I have never fainted, I’ve had the occasional small bruise and pimple that pops up around where a needle was. If that seems like a worry to you, read no further. As for fainting, it isn’t uncommon, especially if a patient hasn’t eaten before treatment. Usually I have patients almost faint getting off the table. You may feel a little woozy, but it’s no different than the feeling after over-exertion, sweating too much in a sauna, or a very long massage. Anyway, I take it as a sign that acupuncture actually does something.

Numbers 4 and 5 should be taken more seriously. The thing is, if you’ve done any cadaver work, as many trained acupuncturists have, you realize that the most common acupuncture points are located in areas where there is, quite literally, nothing. That’s right, we have spaces under our skin where needles can slip right in. We also have a lot of fat beefy muscular areas with inches and inches of thickness before a needle would come anywhere close to a nerve. Acupuncturists have a good understanding of where the lungs, liver, heart, spleen, brain and arteries are, as well as what acupuncture points are nearby. Though there are very safe ways to needle these areas (I’ve seen, needled and been needled in these so-called endangerment areas hundreds of times), many acupuncturists just avoid them altogether, needling only the arms, hands, feet and legs.

Now number 6 is amusing because it’s just outdated. In America, if you’re a nationally certified acupuncturist, you use disposable needles. That means steralized needles that are used only on one point. Once. On you, no one else. I’m no epidemiologist, but I’m pretty certain it would be hard to spread hepatitis B that way. If you’re worried, avoid those acupuncturists with cups of needles sitting in alcohol in treatment rooms. It’s not a bad idea to ask about an acupuncturist’s needles before you make an appointment. If they use any words like autoclave, look elsewhere.

I guess that was the long way of saying yes, acupuncture can kill you. All the more reason to go to a trained and licensed acupuncturist. Then acupuncture becomes no more perilous than crossing the street.

This may be an exception:

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