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Severe pain after acupuncture for back pain and itchy scalp after needle was put in the top of my head?

Q:  I recently had acupuncture for severe pain in left leg and lower back from putting lower back out. The 2nd session was so uncomfortable and painful I haven't been back. Needles placed on left side of body and told to stay on back and keep still -that in itself caused problems and I could not lie on my back without a lot of pain, Needle put in between eyebrows to relax/sleep while I was left alone in room for 20 minutes, which was impossible with the pain I had in my leg and back lying that way. 2nd session was the same only this time a needle was put in top of my head as well. Felt like I was being stabbed with a knife and remained really painful for at least an hour after I left session. I had to ask her to check it was all out of my head as it still felt so painful. She checked and said it was fine. The next day my scalp started to itch really badly and I couldn't stop scratching it. Had to go to doctor to get it checked and she prescribed elocon lotion. I am still experiencing itching a month later on scalp and sometimes back of neck. Could the acupuncture have triggered this. I did not have an itchy head before the acupuncture session and as the head needle was so painful I wondered if it could have been the cause. Some days are not so bad but other days the itching drives me crazy and it's hard to not scratch when that happens which I'm sure would make it worse. I haven't had acupuncture before this and didn't realise the needles and session could be so painful, also seemed to do nothing to help the back pain. If anything, I came out worse than I went in after having to lie on my back so very reluctant to do it again.

A:  Obviously we are going to be quite cautious in what we say, because without knowing a great deal more about the way that the treatment was conducted it would be difficult for us to say with any certainty that the needles actually caused the problems you have. The itching on the scalp immediately after the use of the needle does seem suggestive of a causal pattern, though. People do sometimes have reactions to the needles, especially if they contain nickel or are coated with silicone, as some needles are to make them smoother to insert. A very small proportion of people suffer allergic responses, and it may be that you are one of them. The fact that your doctor prescribed a steroid suggests that there is generalised inflammation.

 If there had been signs of an infection the medication would probably have been different. There are again one or two very rare occasions when needles can cause infection by moving bacteria from the skin surface to slightly lower levels of the dermal layers. This is called autogenic infection, i.e. the needles are sterile and inserted correctly, but the infectious agent is moved from where it is contained and safe to where it can run unchecked. Very unusual but possible, but the itching reaction would not be the most common response.

 The fact that the needle in the head was painful is unlikely in itself to have been the cause of the subsequent problems. The reasons why a needle can be painful are sometimes to do with the energetic reaction of the point (some points generate a dull aching sensation called 'deqi' by the Chinese), and sometimes to do with the needle aggravating a local nerve on being inserted. In neither case would this normally generate an itching sensation.

 As far as needles for the back are concerned, it is probably not very good practice to ask people to sit or lie in positions where the position itself is going to aggravate the problem. This is probably not the best way to endear yourself to a patient, and suggests that the communication was not that well organised. We try to ensure that patients are comfortable and certainly make sure that we change what we are doing if they start to feel really uncomfortable - treatment need not be an endurance test.

 We are not sure what else we could offer by way of advice. We suspect that it is highly unlikely that you will go back to the practitioner for further treatment, and may well have been put off acupuncture altogether. If this is so, then perhaps something like cranial osteopathy may well be the answer. If you do want to give acupuncture treatment another go you will almost certainly find a number of our members close to where you live. We are sure that you will be able to explain your problem to them, including the problems you have had with the treatment so far, and be sure that they will taken this into account.

 As far as the itching is concerned you are doing exactly what we would advise anyway, getting treatment from your GP. If the problem persists and causes you longer term problems you may well be able to make a claim against the practitioner's insurance by setting out what has happened to you and asking them to forward your letter to their professional insurers who will then contact you directly. Again, we suspect that you might simply want to draw a line and walk away, but if you have suffered detriment or been treated beneath the standard which you think you were entitled to, nearly all UK practitioners belong to professional associations which can offer support and advice about options open to you.

 We are sorry once again that your experience of acupuncture treatment has not been a good one, and hope that you do find an effective way of addressing your back problems.


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