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Can I have acupuncture if I'm on warfarin?

Q: I am booked in for acupuncture for neck pain. I am now having second thoughts as I am on warfarin for atrial fibrillation. My questions are: Will it interfere with the electrical impulses from the needles causing me to have an atrial fibrillation attack and could it cause localised bleeding?

A: Let us first put your mind at rest about using acupuncture when on warfarin. The advice we give to members in a Guide to Safe Practice is:

Patients on anti-coagulant medication

You must take great care when needling patients who are taking anti-coagulant drugs such as Warfarin. Only very superficial needling with fine needles (0.20mm) is recommended.  

The risk appears small but internal bleeding leading to compartment syndrome can have extremely serious consequences. There is one report in the medical literature of a case of compartment bleeding following acupuncture in a patient taking anti-coagulants (see link to article at the end of this section).  

Warfarin prevents the body from metabolising vitamin K. Vitamin K controls the formation of a number of coagulation factors in the liver and is an essential substance for blood clotting. Vitamin K is present in most of the foods that are considered to be blood-forming according to Chinese medicine such as green leafy vegetables. This is important to consider if you are giving dietary advice to patients on Warfarinsince these foods can lessen the desired effect of the drug.  

Patients are put on Warfarin or other anti-coagulants for a number of different reasons. These may be purely preventive if, for example, the patient suffers from atrial fibrillation or has mechanical heart valves, or because of recent surgery, stroke, heart attack or thrombosis. The dosage of the medication depends on the desired amount of anti-coagulation for that particular condition.  

Every patient on Warfarin has to undergo tests on a regular basis to check how long it takes for their blood to clot. The frequency of these tests depends on the dosage of their medication and their condition. It is good practice to encourage your patient to have more frequent tests while they are receiving a course of acupuncture as the treatment can positively influence their blood values and may require their Warfarin dosage to be reduced.  

Ask your patient for their INR (international normalised ratio). The INR is a ratio established by measuring the prothrombin time (PT), which is the length of time it takes for the patient’s blood to clot, and then by comparing this value to an average.  

In a healthy person the INR is about 1.0. Patients on Warfarin tend to have an INR somewhere between 2.0 and 3.0 or even higher, depending on the desired amount of anti-coagulation. A higher INR signifies a stronger effect of anti-coagulation.  

The main risk associated with acupuncture is internal bleeding. Depending on the depth of needling and the underlying structures involved this may be insignificant, but there is a chance that it can result in compartment syndrome. Although the risk is small this condition can have serious consequences and often requires surgery.  

Needling should only be done superficially and with fine needles. The higher the INR, the greater the risk of bleeding. Patients with an INR of 3.5 (sometimes therapeutically necessary in the treatment of valvular disease) or higher should be treated with greater care.  

It is also advisable not to use guasha and cupping on patients on anti-coagulants since these techniques tend to draw blood to the upper layers of the skin and can cause severe and prolonged bruising to larger areas of the body.

Of course, we have had to adjust this advice in the new version which we are just about to publish because there is a new generation of anticoagulants like dabigatran (Pradaxa) which do not require the regular monitoring of INR levels, so practitioners need to be vigilant in looking at what happens after they have needled someone. If the patient bruises unexpectedly or with every needle insertion then it may be sensible to refer someone back to their GP for testing to ensure that the dose is correct for them.

Our main caution in Chinese medicine would be where there are syndromes which describe the blood as 'stuck', a term often used being 'blood stasis'. It is just possible that someone being treated with Chinese medicine for blood stasis while at the same time being prescribed anti-coagulants might just find that they clotted a little less quickly than before, but change in this department is never that rapid or dramatic, and the appearance of bruises or bleeding which is harder to stop might well be the first sign of an over-effective combination of therapies. As would always be the case the practitioner would usually refer the patient back to their doctor for re-assessment.

However, we monitor adverse events very closely, both through our own safe practice staff and through our professional insurers, and we have yet to see a claim or report in 30 years based on a bleed from a patient on anti-coagulants.

As far as atrial fibrillation is concerned, we were asked about this recently, and our answer was:

There are some early indications that acupuncture may have an anti-arrhythmic effect in patients with atrial fibrillation. A study published earlier this year    

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312232/

concluded that there appeared to be benefits and that further large scale trials would be valuable to test the hypothesis more carefully.   However, it is only fair to say that needling a single point such as Neiguan repeatedly is not a fair representation of what a traditional acupuncturist does in practice. Although there is considerable overlap between eastern and western systems the arrhythmia typical of AF could be classified in several different ways within Chinese medicine, and the practitioner would be guided by evidence other than simply a reading of the rate of the pulse. That in turn would mean that ten people with AF might receive ten different treatments. To that extent, it is not that straightforward to extrapolate from research studies like this and conclude that 'acupuncture works'.  

The skill of the practitioner lies in making sense of the symptom of AF within an entirely different theoretical framework, and understanding each presentation in each individual patient as unique. The best advice we can give any prosepctive patient is to contact a BAcC member local to them to seek a short face to face consultation at which they can be given a better assessment of whether acupuncture might benefit them.  

The one caution with AF is that most patients are taking some form of medication to control the problem, and the cessation of medication can quickly provoke a return of the symptoms. For people involved in highly technical or responsible work this might represent a serious risk. We would always recommend that any member contemplating treating someone with a condition like AF should talk to the patient's GP to ensure that nothing they do will undermine the current treatment regime. 

A more recent review

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321072/

reinforces this perspective.

As far as 'electrical impulses from the needles' is concerned, only a small minority of our members actually use electro-acupuncture machines attached to the needles, and even where they do there is no risk from their use. One of our senior colleagues has written the definitive guide to electroacupuncture and there is no mention in it of any cautions about AF. If a machine is used correctly, there should be no problem. Where members are using good old-fashioned needling there is no risk of which we are aware that there could be side effects from its use.

We believe that you can go ahead with your treatment in complete confidence that your practitioner is extremely unlikely to cause any problems and will probably have a good impact on your neck. Talk to them about your fears, though; it is far better that they know you are apprehensive, and we are sure that they will do their very best to address your concerns and talk you through what is happening.

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