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Ask an expert - about acupuncture - side effects

134 questions

Q: I am seeing a traditional acunpunturist in my area who is not listed on your website. Is that safe? 

A: Not all BAcC members are listed on our website under the 'Find a Practitioner' feature. Some choose not to advertise in this way, and prefer either not to advertise or to use their own means. However, the website is in the process of being re-designed, and very shortly will have a full register of members in order for members of the public to check whether someone is a bona fide member.
 
There are several other smaller acupuncture organisations besides the BAcC and all have codes of professional conduct and require their members either to take up the professional insurance which they arrange or show proof of their insurance as a basis for registration. The vast majority of acupuncturists working in the UK are properly trained, fully insured and professionally accountable for their behaviour. On top of that acupuncture remains one of the safest therapies of all kinds, with remarkably few serious adverse events. We feel that you can be reassured by this overall position.
 
However, we would say that any professional worth their salt will be only too happy to tell you what their qualifications are, where they obtained them, which professional associations they belong to and who their insurance cover is provided by. If the practitioner shows any reluctance to provide any of this information, then you might be well advised to seek help elsewhere. In any event if you did want to check whether someone did belong to the BAcC or check whether the information they give you is sound we shall be more than happy to oblige.
 

Many of the problems with which people present when they visit an acupuncturist are improved to a measurable extent, and in some cases they go away. To describe this as a 'cure' is not something any BAcC member would claim, however, and the reason lies in the nature of the system of medicine itself. Disease arises for a number of reasons from a Chinese medicine perspective. Apart from the obvious reasons like injury and infection, there are a whole range of lifestyle situations which are seen as disruptive of the body's balance. These can be both external and internal; living on a rotten diet or worrying all of the hours of the day are just as likely from a Chinese medicine perspective to cause disease. Over and above that each of us has a constitutional balance which is largely inherited and which determines how well we maintain our health and which also predisposes us to certain weaknesses.
 
In ancient times the doctor's primary role was to keep someone well rather than to get them better. If a patient became ill at all this was taken as a reflection that the doctor had done a poor job! The practitioner's task is to try to restore balance where it has been disturbed by a recent factor and to strengthen the underlying balance, in order to enable the patient to withstand the ups and downs of life. If the practitioner does a good job then it is largely down to the patient to listen to any advice that the practitioner may have to give in order to stay well. In many cases and if someone's health is generally good, the changes achieved by treatment can be long-lasting. If, however, there are a lot of confounding factors in play, like the patient who wants to keep on working excessively long hours or drinking 40 units of alcohol a week, then there are limits to what any system of medicine can achieve.
 
 

Q: I recently had some accupuncture through my GP. Unfortunately this made me feel extremely sick. Following this I was admitted to hospital for several weeks for treatment for these and other problems. 
However, I am considering trying it again for my cervical dystonia and spondylosis (mainly affecting my left upper back and left side of my neck) which is causing me major problems with pain, stiffness and mobility.
I am hoping you can give me an idea of where the correct points are for any treatment, and how many sessions might be needed?

A: We are sorry to hear of your problems, although we have to say that we would be very surprised if the acupuncture was a significant cause of your admission to hospital. Acupuncture is an extremely safe practice with a very low incidence of adverse events. When these do occur they are very often transient, that is, they last for no more than a day or so and tend to be relatively minor - a headache, feeling very tired, and so on. Serious adverse events are very rare. However, we are heartened that you are considering further treatment.
 
In answer to your first question, it is impossible to predict where the needles will be applied. The strength of Chinese medicine is that it is primarily focused on treating the person, not simply the symptom. If the practitioner finds that the whole system is out of balance, and takes the view that this needs to be corrected before dealing with a local problem, or instead of treating locally, then the needles could be anywhere on the body. In practice, treatment is often a combination of treatment for the system as a whole and of the affected part, and it is highly likely that there may be one or two needles near the areas where you are experiencing pain and discomfort. Although one cannot predict what a practitioner might do, very often points on the neck and shoulder are supplemented with points lower down the arm on the affected side, but without taking a detailed case history and making a thorough examination it is impossible to say.
 
As for frequency of treatment it is again difficult to predict. We advise members to review progress regularly to avoid a kind of 'treatment habit' building up. Normally after three, four or five sessions there should be some appreciable change, and the practitioner's task is to discuss with you whether the rate of change is a sign of a long term improvement and to assess how sustainable it is. Treatment which makes you feel well for 24 hours and then reverts, and this happening several times without the change 'holding' is perhaps a sign that the treatment is only offering temporary pain relief. If this is so, then everyone needs to be really clear about possible outcomes if treatment carries on.
 
We advise you to speak to a BAcC member local to you and see whether you can have a short face to face consultation. The fact that you mention 'other problems' may have a bearing on how well they can treat a single problem against a more complex backdrop. 
 

 

Q:  I experienced a really bad headache after my last accupuncture session that has lasted for about 12 hours. Is this normal?

A:  There are a number of what we call in the jargon 'transient adverse events', or short-term side effects, which people occasionally experience after treatment, of which headache is one. This is sometimes because of the treatment itself, and sometimes because the patient has been unlucky enough to eat, drink or do something which has reacted with the treatment. Short term adverse events are rare (two surveys a decade ago put the incidence at lower than 1 in 10,000) and usually pass off after 24-48 hours.
 
If a symptom persists after two days, it is very important to contact the practitioner and discuss the problem with them. The headache may be attributable to the acupuncture, but may be entirely unrelated. In the case of a headache this may not be an issue, unless it is a particularly severe one, but our members are extremely careful to ensure that erroneous patterns of causation (because something happens after something it must have been caused by it) do not stop someone from getting the treatment they need immediately.
 
We know that sounds a but alarmist, but the bottom line is that if something unexpected happens after a treatment your practitioner will be as keen as you are to establish what is going on and make sure you get the advice and guidance you need.
 
 

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