Find an acupuncturist...

I went to see a physiotherapist after having severe spasms in my side from a pulled muscle

Q: I went to see a physiotherapist after having severe spasms in my side from a pulled muscle.
He recommended acupuncture to "reset my nervous system" and put about 6 or 8 needles in my lower back. The first session was fine, I hardly felt anything. I went back a week later and my side was 90% better so he recommended more acupuncture. This second session was kind of uncomfortable and for hours afterward I had a feeling like a bee was stinging me in the lower back. The next day this was gone but I then I kept feeling like I had little electrical shocks in my lower back. The feeling lasted one day and then was gone, but I have had a throbbing ache in my lower back ever since. This is about 4 weeks now.
I went to see my family physician and she thinks he hit a nerve and I have inflammation and that this pain could be permanent.
I saw my physiotherapist last night. He thinks it is unlikely that he hit a nerve and said that some people just don't take to acupuncture well. He has given me some exercises to do.
I am really concerned that this pain won't go away......I am a self employed (female 56) house painter and have not worked in a month due to this pain.
Any suggestions?
Thank you.

A: First, let us say that we are sorry to hear of your experience. Adverse events after acupuncture treatment are relatively rare, and the vast majority of them are transient, wearing off after a day or two at most.

From what you report we would be very surprised if the practitioner had hit a nerve. This is a generally unmistakable sensation (this expert has been on the receiving end!), and there is absolutely no doubt when it happens. What can happen, though, is that a needle inserted deeply into the tissue of the back or elsewhere can cause a small internal bruise which forms beneath the skin and then becomes more condensed. If this sits near a nerve then every time you move it is going to impinge the nerve and cause pain or discomfort. That certainly sounds like what the 'little electric shocks' could be.

However, these would, or should, have subsided well before four weeks have passed, and certainly would not account for a pain of sufficient intensity to stop you working for this time. There are two possibilities. The first is that the treatment has been a little too successful. The physios'professional association warns its members that occasionally deep needling can relax muscles which, while tense, are actually guarding the back. When these stop doing this job it can mean a back problem which has been under control can suddenly cease to be so. This is quite rare; the BAcC keeps records of reported adverse events and insurance claims, and there have only been a couple of instances over the last twenty years where this may have been the case.

The other possibility is that this problem is unconnected with the treatment, and has just happened coincidentally. This is not so odd as it sounds; with over four million treatments being administered every year there are going to be a few cases where something happens after a treatment which has nothing to do with it. The problem is that patient and practitioner can get then get into debate about whether the treatment caused the problem while it goes undealt with. We always advise members to get their patients checked by the GP and referred on if need be, because eventually the diagnosis will point clearly to the probable cause.

The fact that you may have told the GP that the pain was caused by the treatment may have discouraged them from further investigation. We tend to think that if something is bad enough to keep you off work for a month it needs to be checked out immediately.

We have to say that you physio may be right insofar as acupunbcture isn't always the best treatment for someone, and we have seen several patients for whom it was too powerful an intervention. Where this has happened, though, we have never seen an adverse event lasting this long. The most that we have seen hs been a couple of days.

Hopefully your pains do derive from an accidental nerve impingement, and will subside soon. If they don't, though, we would be pushing for an X-ray or scan to find out what is going on.

Post a question

If you have any questions about acupuncture, browse our archive or ask an expert.

Ask an expert

BAcC Factsheets

Research based factsheets have been prepared for over 60 conditions especially for this website

Browse the facts