According to this report of a study out of the UK and this one, we still don’t know. Why? Because even though they found 325 cases between 2009 and 2011 where there were complications/adverse effects, there is no mention in the study of the total number of treatments given. Plus, the study only looked at NHS providers, not private practitioners.
Since the study didn’t find it fit to provide a context for those numbers I will give it to them. I have a bead on at least 1 year of community acupuncture numbers within the same years of the study. For 2011, per self-reported numbers in the annual community acupuncture survey under CAN-now-POCA, community acupuncture clinics provided at least 390,000 treatments for the year. I say at least because the survey gave a 41% response rate. As soon as I can locate the 2010 numbers I’ll edit them into the post. If we put all those adverse events into 1 year here in the U.S. for community acupuncture clinics that equals a whopping .00083% total rate of adverse events. A solo practitioner tops out at about 100-120 treatments per week if they are constantly busy, giving about 5000 treatments for the year on the low end. So over the year a solo community acupuncturist would have a total adverse-effect rate of .065%.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that 1 person each day will have an adverse effect. Adverse effect includes a WIDE range of issues, from the newsmakers like punctured lung and surgical removal of forgotten needles to mild or moderate bruising or a few drops of blood from a punctured vein. Since we’re not hearing daily or weekly news about major complications I can assume that MDs aren’t seeing as many of those newsmakers.
For perspective, acetomenophen (Tylenol) complications (including liver damage, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain) amount to about 26,000 cases annually with 500 deaths (see here), or 56,000 ER visits with about 500 deaths from liver damage alone (see here). I have never been good with stats so please feel free to do your own math or yell at me for mine.
The article mentions that acupuncture ‘is not as safe as advertised.’ Whoever said acupuncture is completely safe has not thought things through well. To say acupuncture has a 100% safety margin is a lie. We’re using needles near superficial blood vessels and nerves among other things. As community acupunks we tend to stay distal (limbs, head/neck, shoulder). I can’t speak for other acupunks but I know that when I do anything on the abdomen, upper chest, or back I always angle the needle so that it can lay flat on the skin if needed, generally avoiding deeper penetration that can cause complications. Only a few areas get perpendicular needles.
So how safe is acupuncture? I can say is that it seems pretty safe. As with any procedure there are risks that can be easily managed, especially if the acupunk PAYS ATTENTION TO THE PATIENT. I tell my patients suffering is not part of the treatment; I always adjust needles if the pain from insertion lasts more than a few seconds. Patients tend to be helpful in avoiding pain, you know? So take the headlines with a grain of salt. And feel free to ask any acupuncturist including me any questions about the procedure or any other concerns you may have.