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Acupuncture side effects?

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Someone recently asked me if there were any side effects of having acupuncture? She was considering acupuncture treatment for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).


It is a great question. It is an important question.


And I thought I would share the answer I gave her, with you. You should know if there will be any side effects. Because like any medicine there can be.


If you have any questions at all about whether acupuncture is a safe treatment for you, please read below or always get in touch with me.


Love from Andrea


Acupuncture side effects

In a study conducted by the esteemed Hugh McPherson, they asked 9,408 patients for feedback on reactions that had occurred after acupuncture treatment. Of those 9,408, 6,348 completed the questionnaire with 10.7% of those (682) reporting 1,044 incidences.


This means 89.3% or 5,669 people did not suffer any side effects.


What are the side effects of acupuncture

Of those incidences, tiredness or exhaustion was the highest with 227 people reporting this side effect of acupuncture. The second most common incidence of adverse reaction was pain at the site of needling with 103 people reporting it.


Other adverse reactions were headache or migraine (77 people), worsening of symptoms (66 people) or sleeplessness (47 people).


For the full list, you can see below their rate of incidence (per person).

  • Tiredness or exhaustion: 227 people

  • Pain at site of needling: 103

  • Headache or migraine: 77

  • Worsening of symptoms: 76

  • Drowsiness: 53

  • Dizziness or vertigo: 48

  • Sleeplessness: 47

  • Stiffness or numbness: 41

  • Moxibustion burns to the skin: 23

  • Bruising at needling site: 33

  • Skin infection: 23

  • Diarrhoea: 23

  • Agitation: 22

  • Nausea: 22

  • Nightmares: 22

  • Panic: 16

  • Vomiting: 16

  • Fainting: 12

  • Uncontrolled euphoria: 11

  • Disorientation: 7

  • Bleeding at needling site: 4

But overall the study found that


" The most common experiences reported were feeling 'relaxed' (79.1%) followed by feeling 'energised' (32.7%). A total of 24.4% of patients reported 'tiredness' or 'drowsiness', with obvious implications for safety if the patient intended to drive after treatment ".

This leads me nicely on to the fact that despite tiredness and drowsiness being the highest adverse effect, this is not such a concern when you have a mobile acupuncturist (such as me) come to your home. Because once the treatment is over you can remain relaxed in the comfort and safety of your own home. No driving is required.

 

So, yes. My answer is yes acupuncture does come with side effects. All medical interventions run the risk of side effects. But it is why I am always so adamant that people have acupuncture with a qualified acupuncturist who has the required training in the UK (a minimum of three years full time) and are part of a recognised regulatory body.


Because in the study conducted by McPherson, they agreed that they had found:


"strong evidence that acupuncture, when practised by regulated practitioners, is a safe intervention"

what happens after acupuncture

Fully qualified acupuncturists, trained to this level, are taught correct needling techniques, first aid and red flags. It is a requirement that we practice to the highest and safest level.


But of course, human error does occur. I would love to say there are zero risks, but human intervention will always have a human response.


This is why biomedicine also runs a risk of causing side effects. The medications we take. The procedures we have to do. All come with a degree of risk, which I will briefly examine below.

 

The side effects of biomedicine


how will I feel after acupuncture

The British Medical Journal published an analysis in 2016 which highlighted that "it is worth noting that medical error is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States"


The World Health Organisation also notes that


Patient safety is a serious global public health concern. There is a 1 in a million chance of a person being harmed while travelling by plane. In comparison, there is a 1 in 300 chance of a patient being harmed during health care

And whilst it is 20 years out of a date a report called An Organisation With a Memory found that


the best research-based estimates we have reveal enough to suggest that in NHS hospitals alone adverse events in which harm is caused to patients occur in around 10% of admissions – or at a rate in excess of 850,000 a year

There is also no denying there is an opioid crisis in the United States and an article in The Guardian in January 2021 talked about the rise of people using anti-depressants (no judgement here, me too)


But it got me thinking about what are the side effects of my anti-depressants? Because in three years I have never looked at that leaflet. When the doctor gave them to me, there was no rundown of what side effects may occur. I wanted to take them. They were offered to me, and yet a myriad of side effects haunt me (the yawning) but I still take them. Because they also work. They help keep me on an even keel. So it is a catch 22.


They also cost me £9.45 for two months instead of getting regular acupuncture (which as a student for the past 3 years I just couldn't afford).


I would love to change that.


The side effects of SSRIs

Here is the full list of possible side effects, which was taken from the BNF (a joint publication of the British Medical Association and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society). This is a list of potentially 38 common or very common side effects of taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which are most commonly prescribed as antidepressants.


And as I said. I take them. I live with 6 of those common side effects.


Common or very common

Anxiety; appetite abnormal; arrhythmias; arthralgia; asthenia; concentration impaired; confusion; constipation; depersonalisation; diarrhoea; dizziness; drowsiness; dry mouth; fever; gastrointestinal discomfort; haemorrhage; headache; hyperhidrosis; malaise; memory loss; menstrual cycle irregularities; myalgia; mydriasis; nausea (dose-related); palpitations; paraesthesia; QT interval prolongation; sexual dysfunction; skin reactions; sleep disorders; taste altered; tinnitus; tremor; urinary disorders; visual impairment; vomiting; weight changes; yawning


Uncommon

Alopecia; angioedema; behaviour abnormal; hallucination; mania; movement disorders; photosensitivity reaction; postural hypotension; seizure; suicidal behaviours; syncope


Rare or very rare

Galactorrhoea; hepatitis; hyperprolactinaemia; hyponatraemia; serotonin syndrome; severe cutaneous adverse reactions (SCARs); SIADH; thrombocytopenia

 

This is not to say that biomedicine is not amazing. It is. It is also not acupuncturists versus doctors. The NHS is wonderful. It saved my Nan who needed open-heart surgery. It helped my Grandad who has cataracts. I gave birth to my two wonderful girls in NHS hospitals. The staff and care I received were wonderful.


But it comes with a risk of side effects or adverse events. As does acupuncture.


And you don't even have to choose. It is not a versus situation. You can receive biomedicine and complementary medicine simultaneously.

 

If you are interested in other research papers on the safety of acupuncture please see below


MacPherson H, Thomas K, Walters S, et al. The York acupuncture safety study: prospective survey of 34 000 treatments by traditional acupuncturists. BMJ Clinical research 2001;323(7311):486-87.


White, A. (2006). The safety of acupuncture – evidence from the UK. Acupuncture in Medicine, 24(Suppl), 53–57. https://doi.org/10.1136/aim.24.Suppl.53


Witt CM, Pach D, Brinkhaus B, et al. Safety of acupuncture: results of a prospective observational study with 229,230 patients and introduction of a medical information and consent form. Forschende Komplementärmedizin 2009;16(2):91-97. doi: 10.1159/000209315


 

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