Acupuncture is used by millions of Americans. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), report 3.1 million Americans visited acupuncturists in 2007, up from 2.1 million in 2002. Many people use acupuncture for its benefits, because of its apparent safety, compared to other standard treatment modalities. A recent study, reminds us that all treatments, including acupuncture have a risk. The University of Hong Kong’s research determined there are a few potential safety concerns associated with acupuncture. It is important to be aware of them, so that you are certain that your acupuncture treatment is helpful, not harmful. Interestingly, the researchers determined the greatest danger is not associated with contaminated needles.
The study’s critical finding from this research: The greatest number of medical complications linked to acupuncture treatment arise from failing to correctly clean a person’s skin prior to inserting the needles. While there’s been a lot of concern about contaminated needles, the study shows that puncturing bacteria-laden skin with needles -- even sterile ones – distributes the organisms, from the skin’s surface into the underlying tissue, occasionally causing serious infections and in rare cases leading to joint destruction and organ failure. The study also reported concern that contaminated auxiliary equipment, such as swabs and towels, could cause mycobacteriosis, an infection that can cause skin ulcers.
According to Lixing Lao, MD, PhD, LAc, an expert on acupuncture-related health risks and the director of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Research Program at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. While contaminated needles were once problematic, in the US the infections are extremely ware, as to be almost unheard of. Dr. Lao said most acupuncture done here now uses disposable needles, and acupuncture training includes thorough instruction in sanitary procedures, including proper disinfection of patients’ skin and hygienic management of sheets, towels and other equipment.
Safety tips: Sanitation is vital. Before having an acupuncturist treat you...
- Make sure that your acupuncturist is a member of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) and is licensed by your state (if applicable). (See www.nccaom.org for more information and to locate licensed acupuncturists near you.)
- It is important that you feel comfortable with the acupuncturist and can determine that the office and treatment facilities are well-maintained and clean.
- Make sure your skin is properly cleansed, using an alcohol-soaked pad, before being punctured.
Inform your acupuncturist of your entire medical history. In particular:
- Let your acupuncturist know if you have a pacemaker. Some acupuncturists use electrical stimulation equipment to accelerate treatment. Although it has never been proven that the electrical current interferes with a pacemaker, practitioners keep needles away from the front of the neck and over the heart in people who have them.
- Inform your doctor about health problems, such as a bleeding disorder, if you take blood thinners or if you have a low white blood cell count.
When clean needle precautions are followed, acupuncture is a very safe treatment procedure -- but it’s not risk-free. Safety problems in acupuncture are extremely rare, but approaching it with care will go far to make sure they remain so.