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Unbearable pain after acupuncture

Q:  A few years back I had a car accident and was asked whether I would like acupuncture,  which I liked the idea of trying. My first appointment I was needled across my back hands & shoulders.  It was an unusual sensation but bearable. The second appointmet  the following week,  I was in unbearable pain as soon as the needles were inserted to the extent I was in floods of tears.  I wondered - is this a natural reaction or whether simply it was someone different doing it the following week?

A:  We can't quite be sure of the chronology from your question. It reads as though the treatment was administered some years ago at around the same time as the accident, which is what we shall address.

Generally speaking, there is very little pain associated with acupuncture treatment. Most patients feel only a very slight pinprick and either a mild tingling sensation or a little dull ache. Indeed, since the advent of the guide tubes which many practitioners now use, many patients feel almost nothing at all except the pressure of the tube on the skin.

Occasionally a needle may hit a small nerve or blood vessel, and this can cause the sort of short term 'ouch' which is to be expected. It would be very rare for someone to experience unbearable pain. There are one or two reasons which might make this possible. One is that the accident caused a general sense of shock in the body which can on occasion cause a considerable amount of rigidity in the muscles. In our experience needling into muscles in spasm usually releases the knots, but on occasion this can go the other way and increase the underlying discomfort. Acupuncture treatment also targets the whole person, at least when performed by a traditional acupuncturist. There have been a few occasions when the treatment which someone has can release tensions and knots of which the patient may be unaware. It can also cause an emotional release, especially when there has been a great deal of shock and a wise practitioner will stop treating immediately and let the patient recover rather than ploughing on.

However, you mention the fact that the treatment was performed by a different person the second time, which implies that you were treated in something like a pain management clinic. Some of the practitioners using acupuncture in these clinics are trained in specific techniques but given the limited nature of their training tend to use slightly thicker and longer needles, and often use a more vigorous technique than our members might. This can be quite difficult for a patient to 'endure', especially if the system is still in shock. The fact that the first treatment was fine suggests, though, that this was down to the technique of the individual involved, and we have to be honest and say that we have a small number of colleagues whose technique could be described as 'robust'. This is fine if people get better from whatever they have, but may not play so well if the treatment doesn't work!

The short answer, though, is that while your reaction is not common, it is knot unknown, and we hope that it has not put you off any future thoughts of treatment. If you did decide to have further treatment in the future it would be very sensible to mention this last reaction to the practitioner and alert them to using the most gentle techniques to begin with to avoid any repetition.

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