Acupuncture Gets The Okay

Acupuncture is used to treat everything from arthritis pain to menopausal symptoms, but something about those needles has given pause to many potential patients. Is it really safe?

There had been no definitive answer, until recently, when the British Medical Journal published the results of two large-scale studies (2001, vol. 323, no. 7311). The good news is that the benefits of acupuncture far outweigh negative side effects of treatment, and whatever the few post-treatment complaints, they are minor and short-lived.

One study, conducted with 78 British acupuncturists, reported 2,135 minor problems out of 31,822 consultations from June 1998 to February 2000. The complaints ranged from bleeding to needle pain, but each lasted less than a week. No serious adverse events were noted.

In a second study, 570 members of the British Acupuncture Council reported 403 minor adverse events occurring out of 34,407 treatments, including pain from the needle, bruising, bleeding, nausea and fainting. Three problems were caused by practitioner error: Needles were left in two patients and one patient was burned by moxibustion, an application of heat to acupuncture points. Some patients in both studies suffered temporary exacerbation of symptoms but this situation was always followed by improvement.

In an accompanying editorial, the journal concluded that complications from acupuncture are "remarkably rare and transient," especially when compared with the rate of adverse drug reactions or prescribing errors in primary care medicine, estimated at 0.5 percent to 6 percent.