Systematic reviews of clinical trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of acupuncture 1 and have extended our knowledge of the mechanisms of action in the treatment of numerous medical conditions. However, the benefits of any treatment must be weighed against potential harms in order to assess its potential role in health care.
When reporting on adverse events within acupuncture research there are usually two aspects considered: serious adverse events such as pneumothorax or needles piercing organs and minor adverse events such as bruising, fainting or symptoms becoming temporarily worse. Some trials also include a person feeling energized or feeling tired following a treatment as a minor adverse event, although many practitioners and patients may consider this a useful treatment response.
In 2006, an analysis of acupuncture safety was published by British researcher Adrian White.2 The author presented the findings of two prospective trials carried out in the United Kingdom between 1998-2000. 66,229 treatments were reviewed. This treatment analysis found the incidence of Serious Adverse Events to be zero. In the Survey of Adverse Events Following Acupuncture (SAFA) in 2002, 2178 minor adverse events were reported with 31,822 treatments included (7%). In The York Acupuncture Safety Study published in 2001, which included 34,407 treatments, 4,528 (13%) minor adverse were reported. The different rates between these two studies is due at least in part to different criteria for what qualified as an adverse event, which in the York trial included, for instance, patients feeling weak and tired after treatment.
In the same paper, White also provides the findings from other studies describing the safety of acupuncture. The analysis included 13 studies and 4,441,103 treatments. Overall, there were 11 serious adverse events reported. The most common serious adverse event was pneumothorax (7 per 4,441,103 treatments). There were also two incidents of a needle breaking while still inserted however, this involved the use of reusable needles rather than the single use disposal needles that are used in today’s practice.