Ask an expert - about acupuncture - side effects

134 questions

Q:  Memory loss as a result of acupuncture. My 18-year old granddaughter had pain therapy by using acupuncture in a recognized hospital. After the second session, the loss of memory for a period of one month. When she came out of the hospital she did not know where she was. She  did not remember having acupuncture.  All events and  study matter last month have been deleted. .Are such cases are known, and where can one  find them? 

A:This sounds a very distressing and unpleasant case.

We have looked through all the adverse event literature we have and there is no mention of anything similar. Most of the adverse events involve physical damage, but where they are psychological or mental, they tend to be very short lived. There is certainly nothing of which we are aware which has had such a profound effect on someone.

There are really only two possibilities. First, if the acupuncture has not been delivered with proper care and has either managed to penetrate the scalp or cause a minor infection in that area there is a remote chance that this has caused the problem. This would be unique in the history of modern acupuncture, but it remains a theoretical risk. The other more likely reason is that the treatment and the symptom of memory loss are not directly related, and that the problem arose while the grand-daughter was having treatment but not caused by it. With the millions of treatments now being provided each year there is always a possibility that someone will have a strange or serious episode at the same time as the acupuncture treatment but having no connection with it. It is often hard to convince someone the two are not related, and this can occasionally mean instead of getting orthodox treatment a row starts about who caused what.

We are not sure what the email means about everything being deleted. We can only assume this is not in the UK, where deleting patient files and records within seven years would be illegal. If the records have been deleted it would be very difficult to offer a view about what might have caused a problem. The points used would be the only indicator of potential physical damage.

 

Q:  48 hours ago I received my first treatment for whiplash from a car accident 4 months ago. Yesterday I noticed some tender lumps on my neck at the base of my skull. This morning I noticed those lumps weren't as tender but more tender spots developed while I was sleeping. I have a really tender one behind my left ear that almost feels like a swollen gland. Is this normal? My acupuncturist told me any tender spots should dissipate within a few hours with heat application but it's been 2 days and more lumps developed even after using heat. I can't find anything online about acupuncture causing swollen glands.

A:  We wouldn't go so far as to say that this is normal, but it is possible. We do sometimes find that when we treat areas where there has been some form of congestion or blockage a number of unusual reactions can occur as the flow of energy resumes.

However, your acupuncturist's advice is probably right - these sorts of reactions should die down within 48 hours, and if they don't they are worthy of further exploration. The obvious question to check first off would be whether the lumps have appeared where the needles themselves were applied. Many practitioners use a number of points in this area for treating whiplash, often to dissipate some of the muscle tension that gathers in the area, and there are a few patients who are allergic to needles themselves. Some, although not as many as used to be the case, contain nickel, to which people can often be allergic, and some have a silicon coating to aid insertion. This too can cause a small minority of patients to react strongly. In both of these cases, there resulting 'bumps' might last a little longer.

If they persist after four or five days, then it would be necessary to find out more about how they present. Are the lumps under the skin and palpable but with no surface appearance, or is there redness and inflammation. This would help to determine whether there is any localised infection, although that would be very rare. The use of single use disposable pre-sterilised needles has all but removed this as a possibility, but it does present a theoretical risk, with the most likely sites of infection being where the needles were actually placed.

There is, of course, the possibility that this has actually nothing to do with the treatment itself but is some form of strange coincidence. We say this because with nearly 3 million treatments a year there are going to be unusual symptoms which begin after a treatment which have nothing to do with the treatment itself. This can sometimes lead to inconclusive arguments about what caused what while the problem is not properly addressed. This is why in all these cases we tend to say that if the symptoms persist for more than three or four days you should book an appointment with your GP as a safeguard to ensure that if this is something which requires conventional treatment it is better treated earlier than later.

It is also worthwhile staying in touch with your practitioner and possibly arranging to pop back in to see him or her so that they can take a look at what is going on and offer any relevant advice based on their knowledge of what they have been trying to achieve.

 

A: We would say that this is not impossible but not normal. A great deal depends on what you mean by swelling. Is the whole lower back swollen or just the area where the needle was inserted? is there any bruising? Does the area hurt without you touching it or is it something you can actually feel when you are walking around?

Without a lot more information we are a bit stumped as to what to advise. It is not unknown for people to experience a little more discomfort after a first treatment, and this usually resolves after 48 hours at the latest. If a problem persists after that it may be that there has been a slight bruising in deeper tissue which will eventually emerge. On very rare occasions it can also be an allergic reaction to the needles themselves, but we think this is highly unlikely.

The best advice we can give is that you contact the practitioner and pop back in for him or her to see. If the swelling persists for more than 48 hours you might also want to pop along to your GP just for reassurance.

We suspect that this is a transient reaction and should disappear quite quickly, and our best would be on deep bruising. However, it is important that your practitioner takes note of this

Q:  My partner is an acupuncture student and was practicing on me in an effort to relieve a headache of mine. He inserted one of the needles in the space next to my pinky knuckle and I experienced a small explosive sensation, as if an elastic band had snapped on the surface of my knuckle, along with some sharp pain. It faded for a couple days and since the pain has returned and become a chronic soreness, that is acute when I grasp and turn things with my hand. This has continued for a week now, and I am concerned that I have permanent nerve damage and accompanying pain. Do you have any insight you can offer into what happened and where I can go from here. If it is nerve damage is there hope for recovery?

A:  We think that it is highly unlikely that you have suffered permanent nerve damage. The most likely cause of your pain, if the point is the one which we suspect it is, is that there has been a small bruise caused by the insertion of the needle and which lies hard up against a nerve or tendon passing through the area. Whenever you grip something or move a little, this is going to press on the surrounding tissue and cause discomfort. Generally speaking these sorts of problems resolve themselves within a couple of weeks. 

It is unlikely, given the needling techniques taught to students, that there has been anything forceful enough to cause physical damage. However, without knowing exactly what was done and what gauge, depth and angle of needle insertion we are a little bit limited in what we can say. We are, though, just a little bit concerned that you experienced a snapping sensation. If a nerve is hit this is usually experienced as an electric shock feeling, and often causes involuntary movement in the affected area. If the problems persist for more than another week we would be very inclined to recommend that you see your GP and get the area checked. It would be particularly important to see whether this has affected your range of movement of grip.

That said, in all likelihood it will have resolved by the time you read this. We are bound to say, though, that it does highlight a small problem about receiving treatment from someone who is not qualified. Many training courses take a very dim view of students practising without permission, and although some have what is called pre-qualifying practice where the student has insurance and a permit to work unsupervised away from the course, the majority only insure someone working inside the course premises and working in properly established conditions. If something very much more damaging had occurred there would be no insurance cover and the only redress would be a civil action, which is not renowned for cementing good relationships. It also means that a student would be limited in what they could ask, given that they could get thrown off a course for practising pre-qualification. 

Sorry to have to mention this, but we often tell our members that treating friends and family at any time except in emergencies is fraught with problems. People think that being  a friend means that someone will not complain or sue - they are wrong!

Q:  I had acupuncture as part of my physio session on Monday.  I willl be honest my back ache since being treated has got worse.   I've  also developed a pulsing sensation in my top lip but only on one side.  I have  also suffered a partial loss of feeling to this area. I can bite it and I can feel the pressure on my lip however it doesnt hurt whereas if I bite the other side it does hurt.

A:We can understand the increased pain in the back. As we have mentioned many times before we, in common with osteopaths and chiropractors, often warn patients with back and neck problems that their symptoms might be more exaggerated for about 24-48 hours, after which they will subside and usually improve. There are all sorts of possible explanations for this, on none of which is their agreement, but the phenomenon is well enough known to make the warning a normal part of practice.

We are a little more concerned by the strange symptom that you now have. A great deal depends on where needles were inserted, and we have to assume that nothing was placed in the face proximate to what is happening. There is a very remote possibility that a needle in the head or neck might have generated the loss of sensation, but it would be a very remote possibility and the chances are that you would have felt something while it happened.

While not wishing to be alarmist, we think that you should really get this checked by your GP pretty quickly. It may just be that the symptom's appearance is entirely coincidental and has nothing to do with the treatment itself. Rather than let people get involved in pointless arguments of the 'you did this, no I didn't' kind we always advise patients to get things checked and addressed first. This usually establishes causation pretty quickly, and with it any possible liability. The key thing is to get the symptom checked as soon as possible.

We do have, and always have had, a few misgivings about western medical acupuncture sometimes generating symptoms by working from an entirely different theoretical basis which of necessity does not take into account the energetic connections on which our work is based. There is a point used for the treatment of tennis elbow, for example, which can drastically lower blood pressure in our system, and if it is treated over-vigorously could have serious consequences in some patients. However, without knowing which points were used it is difficult to say, and even then we are hard pressed to think what might have been needled which could cause this to happen.

Of course, the other person you could contact is the physio him or herself. We are completely confident that they will respond to your problem and can work work with you to find out what has happened, with the obvious advantage that they know what they have been needling and any possible neurophysiological causes it may have.

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