Acupuncture performed by a qualified practitioner is very safe. Saying that, there is currently no regulation of acupuncture in the UK as there is for example, in Australia, New Zealand, most of the US, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Japan. This means that anyone can practice acupuncture after completing any acupuncture course provided by anyone. So yes, the question - what can go wrong with acupuncture? is a very valid one.
All that is required by law in the UK is a piercing license which is issued by the council, but there is no minimum qualification requirement, just suitably clean premises and sharps disposal for acupuncture.
The less training a person has, the more likely the acupuncture can ‘go wrong’. Although nobody has ever died from acupuncture gone wrong (in the UK at the time of writing) there can be some serious side effects if the needles aren’t placed correctly.
- Nerve damage
If the needle is incorrectly inserted - wrong angle, or too deep, or just completely wrong location, there is a chance for it to hit a nerve. And you’ll definitely know about it if it does, you know that feeling when you hit your funny bone on a corner… it’s like that, except worse. And you might have pins and needles or weakness in the area of the nerve for quite a while. If this has happened to you, please see your GP, and get a new acupuncturist!
This is when you get a hole in your lung, which can cause it to collapse and can be fatal. Again, this only happens if a needle is inserted incorrectly, and this is one of the things we always have in mind when treating as there are many points on the chest and back with the potential to cause pneumothorax. If you feel short of breath during or after your acupuncture treatment you must go to A&E or call for emergency services. And get a new acupuncturist.
3. Organ puncture
Similar to above, any organ has the potential to be punctured if the needles aren’t inserted correctly and in the right location. This is extremely rare, however, as typically the needles aren’t long enough to reach them. So absolutely get a new acupuncturist if this happens to you.
4. Needle breakage
If an acupuncture needle breaks inside your body, (again very rare), you will need to get emergency help to extract it. And maybe get tested in case you’re superman and can also repel bullets?
Less severe side effects include; bruising, bleeding, soreness, tiredness, and dizziness, and affect about 10% of people. These are usually very mild and pass within a few hours, or a few days for bruising. You’re more likely to have bruising if you bruise like a peach (bruise easily!). If you have periods, I have noticed in my own clients that we tend to be more sensitive to the needles just before and during menstruation, bruising more often during this time.
If you’ve had a bad experience with acupuncture so far, I encourage you to make sure your practitioner is qualified and insured. If you need some pointers for finding a good acupuncturist in the UK, see my article here.
I hope this article hasn’t put you off trying acupuncture, it’s one of the safest treatments you can get. Most people walk away feeling calm, relaxed, and all fuzzy inside. Plenty more people die from paracetamol than having acupuncture (211 people died of paracetamol poisoning in 2019 in England and Wales)1. Hopefully, in the near future, acupuncture will be statutory regulated and there will be a high minimum standard of education for all acupuncturists in the UK!
1 Statista (2021) Number of deaths from drug poisoning by paracetamol in England and Wales from 1993 to 2019 [Online] Available from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/471227/death-by-paracetamol-drug-poisoning-in-england-and-wales/