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Is it possible to have nerve damage in your hand from having acupuncture?

Q:  I think I may have nerve damage in my hand from having acupuncture 2 weeks ago. My practitioner needled two points on the outer side of my hand - my wrist and under my little finger. A day or so later I noticed that my hand felt painful and I started to get shooting pains running up the side of my hand. It is painful when it is rested, and is painful when I touch it. Also certain positions that I put my hand in, make the pain much worse. There is also numbness. I'm not able to pick up anything, or even do something simple such as tie my hair back as the pain shooting down my hand is so intense. Obviously I am very concerned about permanent nerve damage and I am not sure what I can do. Can permanent nerve damage happen?

A:  Permanent nerve damage could, in theory, happen, but it is a very rare outcome from treatment. We have always carefully monitored adverse event data from across the world, and this does not appear at all in most cumulative studies.

 In fact, in order for there to be nerve damage you would invariably have felt some extremely unmistakable pain as the needle hit the nerve. There is no room for doubt, as this expert can attest from a rather interesting attack on his median nerve back in the 1980s. What is more likely to have happened is that there has been some deep bruising where the needles have been inserted which has formed small but solid clots near to where nerves and blood vessels pass. The way that you describe the way that the problems occur sounds very much like the sorts of things you would expect - pain and numbness on specific movements aggravating a persistent background pain. The impingement which this has caused and continues to cause will generate pain and numbness of the kind you describe for a short while.

 How long this short while may be is difficult to determine. We would expect there to be a week or two, but in your case this has already passed. If the problems continue at their current level of intensity and annoyance for another fortnight then it would be wise to visit your doctor for an assessment. If he or she performs some fairly routine and simple tests they can determine whether you might need a referral to a neurologist.

 We suspect, however, that the problem will resolve before that becomes necessary.