It is time to start setting the record straight on acupuncture. Currently there is a notion that acupuncture can be a risky treatment, below I will present the evident to shatter this illusion and reinstate the correct understanding, that acupuncture is in fact much safer than conventional medicine.
Research into acupuncture safety
There is now a huge wealth of evidence into the safety of acupuncture. The largest study, from Germany, included nearly 500,000 patients with over 4 million treatments. It discovered only 0.003% of treatments resulted in major side effects. The most common being pneumothorax, but also including, acute hyper- or hypotensive event, a skin infection known as erysipelas and asthma attack. Minor side effects were more common but were made up of needling pain, haematoma, and bleeding. Another review, which included nearly 4.5 million treatments, found only 11 major adverse events, again pneumothorax was the most common. This equates to a 0.00025% of major adverse events. I will note here that this was the most ‘major’ adverse event, no cases of death were recorded in these cases.
For fairness’ sake, however, I should note that there have been 90 cases of death in the medical literature. However, these were pretty much all in developing countries and the result of poor training or poor hygiene, none of which are the case in UK practice. We have strict codes for education, conduct and safety that all registered acupuncturists adhere to.
To summarise, in the UK acupuncture causes a tiny amount of major adverse events. None of these have resulted in fatalities and even the level of minor adverse events is low, 7%, and the minor events are very minor.
Research into prescription drug safety
Prescription drugs on the other had are in a whole different ball park. In the US, there are 700,000 visits to A&E due to adverse drug reactions and 106,000 people die each year from drug reactions, making prescription drugs the 4th leading cause of death in America. Unfortunately, I could not find these statistics for the UK, but if a direct population comparison were drawn that would equate to 142,210 visits to the hospital for adverse drug reactions and 21,535 deaths per year directly due to prescription drugs. This is, however, a bit of an unfair comparison as the level of prescription drug use is much higher in America, it is estimated that the average American adult takes 11 or more prescription drugs, but it does give an idea of the danger associated with drugs and certainly highlights how safe acupuncture is in comparison, especially as there are no known cases of death from qualified acupuncture practitioners.
The above is obviously the extreme reactions from prescription drugs, namely death. Other reactions are also known. On average, each drug has 70 listed side-effects, the maximum number being around 525 possible side-effects for one drug. For commonly prescribed drugs it is closer to 100 known side-effects. These can range from drowsiness, nausea, headaches, to cardiovascular issues, stoke, heart attack and, as noted above, death.
The incidence of drug related side effects varies significantly depending on the prescribed drug, the dose, how long the drug is taken for and if other drugs are taken at the same time. It obviously varies significantly, but I was unable to find one that was not at least one order of magnitude above the major acupuncture adverse reactions, though it was more commonly 2-4 orders of magnitude depending on the symptom.
I hope this article has made you question which treatment is indeed the safer for you and has gone towards changing the narrative around acupuncture. I would always recommend speaking to a medical professional before stopping any course of drugs you may be taking, but perhaps before you start another one it would be worth consulting an acupuncturist. You are more than welcome to get in touch with me, I am always happy to answer questions around acupunctures safety and efficacy.