Adverse Reactions to Acupuncture – Rare, but Avoidable

Adverse Acupuncture

For most of the patients we work with, one of the most appealing aspects of alternative medicine is the generally low risk of side effects. These therapies are much less likely to damage healthy tissues or induce toxicity than traditional cancer treatments.

However, according to an article in the newest issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, acupuncture – one of the most commonly used alternative cancer therapies – can cause certain side effects if performed incorrectly.

The study reviewed 167 articles published in Chinese medical databases over a 44-year period. Throughout that time, 1,038 patients experienced adverse reactions to acupuncture treatments. The most common included:

  • Syncope (fainting) – 468 patients
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung) – 307 patients
  • Subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding into the space around the brain) – 64 patients

The researchers determined that while these side effects had the potential to be a significant threat, they are possible to avoid.

They identified the three main causes of the side effects, and with careful consideration by both the patient and the practitioner, it is fully possible to avoid them.

What You Can Do to Avoid Adverse Reactions to Acupuncture

The researchers identified three major contributing factors to these side effects: the mental tension of the patient, improper operation by the doctor and incomplete sterilization practices. Each of these three factors can be addressed by simple research and preparation. To help reduce your risk of adverse reactions to acupuncture, consider the following steps:

  • Find relaxation techniques that work for you. Squeamish about needles? Close your eyes. Visualize a positive place. Adopt an empowering mantra. Focus on the benefits your body is about to receive. These tips – along with many others your acupuncturist can provide – can help you relax during the session, reducing the risk of tension-related side effects.
  • Confirm your acupuncturist’s training and licenses. An acupuncture practitioner can be either licensed or certified. Certified acupuncturists are typically physicians with a broad medical background who have completed up to 300 hours of home study training. These professionals are not required to pass examinations or treat patients before receiving their certificate.

On the other hand, licensed acupuncturists undergo more than 2,000 hours of masters-level training at an accredited institution. Licensed acupuncturists must pass a national certification examination, and by the time they receive their license, they have already treated at least 250 patients under their trainer’s supervision. Licensed acupuncturists must also take continuing education classes to stay up-to-date on safety procedures and acupuncture techniques.

While both types of acupuncturists can capably perform the procedure, licensed acupuncturists are more likely to know which methods are safest and most effective.

  • Ask for clarification of the sterilization process. Your acupuncturists should be willing to explain the way that they clean their needles between patients. Steam sterilization is the most widely used method, and it is fully effective when done using 100 percent saturated steam that is free from air. The process lasts between three and 30 minutes, depending on the temperature of the machine. You may even be able to ask your practitioner to complete the sterilization process in your presence for extra peace of mind. Do not allow your doctor to use needles that were boiled or soaked in alcohol – these methods do not kill all of the bacteria or viruses that may contaminate your acupuncture needle.

Many acupuncturists use disposable needles to avoid the need for sterilization altogether. Disposable needles come in sterilized packaging and are discarded after each patient’s acupuncture session. You can ask the acupuncturist before the appointment whether they use disposable needles.

While it’s important to follow these steps for a safe acupuncture procedure, it’s also important to remember that adverse reactions are relatively rare. Over the course of the 44-year study, just over 1,000 adverse reactions were reported in China – a country where Eastern medicine techniques often lie at the heart of medical treatment.

Have you tried acupuncture? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.


After graduating with an English degree from Southeastern University in 2010, Faith Franz came on board as a health and wellness writer for The Mesothelioma Center.

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