Many Americans deal with some form of pain on a daily basis, whether it be from chronic lower back pain, headaches, or pain related to conditions such as cancer. Medications used to treat chronic pain frequently have side effects such as sedation which make it difficult to function during the day, and these medications only mask the pain rather than address the root cause. For this reason more people are turning to non-drug remedies for treating chronic pain. One alternative pain treatment that’s grown in popularity and acceptance is acupuncture. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective for controlling chronic back pain, dental pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and pain after surgery. Although acupuncture offers some benefits for treating these conditions, an issue that’s rarely addressed are the potential side effects of this procedure. What are the risks and dangers of acupuncture treatment, if any?
Side Effects of Acupuncture: How is Acupuncture Performed?
Acupuncture is based on the theory that pain occurs when the natural flow of energy known as qi is blocked. The goal of acupuncture is to restore the flow of energy or qi so that the pain and discomfort can be eliminated To do this, tiny, sterile needles are placed on the surface of the skin at specific points to rechannel the flow of qi. Because the needles are so small, pain is usually not experienced. In fact, most patients undergoing acupuncture feel sedate and relaxed with some falling asleep during the procedure.
Side Effects of Acupuncture: Are There Any Dangers of Acupuncture?
Although acupuncture is a low-risk procedure, there is always the risk of disease transmission if the needles aren’t properly sterilized. There have been cases of hepatitis B and C transmitted through use of non-sterile acupuncture needles. Anytime needles are used to pierce the skin, there’s the risk of bruising or a hematoma. Less likely, but possible, is the risk of nerve damage if the needles are placed incorrectly. Damage can also occur to specific organs such as the brain, kidney, or lung, when deep needling is done in those areas. There have been rare cases of punctured lungs during an acupuncture session.
Side Effects of Acupuncture: Other Risks
More common, but less serious side effects of acupuncture include headache, nausea, lightheadedness or fainting, fatigue, and anxiety. Some people experience a temporary worsening of their symptoms after acupuncture.
How to Avoid the Adverse Effects of Acupuncture
Always verify the credentials of the person performing the acupuncture session. There are licensed medical doctors and osteopaths who perform acupuncture and they may be more qualified to treat the underlying condition than an acupuncture practitioner. To find a qualified physician, contact the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. Before getting acupuncture to treat a pain, make sure the procedure has been shown to be successful in treating your particular condition. It may be best to get a second opinion before proceeding. Finally, make sure the acupuncturist uses sterile, disposable needles to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
American Family Physician. Volume 80, No. 5. pages 481-483.