Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and involves the insertion of needles into specific points on the skin to bring about healing. When correctly performed by a skilled practitioner, acupuncture is a highly effective treatment for a range of disorders, including respiratory illnesses and pain management. Increasing interest in Eastern-style therapeutic systems means that more Australians than ever before are turning to acupuncture, either as a primary form of treatment or as a supplement to their conventional medical care.
There are more than 1,800 practitioners of TCM in Australia and increasing numbers of students are being trained in educational facilities across the country every year. Victoria is in the process of implementing the Chinese Medicine Registration Act 2000. There is, as yet, no direct regulation by other Australian governments of the practice of TCM. There are, however, state and federal laws that address acupuncture indirectly and help to ensure high standards.
Acupuncture involves inserting small needles into various points (“acupoints”) in the body to stimulate nerve impulses.
Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the idea of ‘qi’ (vital energy) which is said to travel around the body along ‘meridians’ which the acupuncture points affect.
Western acupuncture uses the same needling technique, but is based on affecting nerve impulses and the central nervous system, and can also include the use of herbs, electricity, magnets and lasers.
Because acupuncture needles penetrate the skin, many forms of acupuncture are invasive procedures, and therefore not without risk. Injuries are rare among patients treated by trained practitioners. In most jurisdictions, needles are required by law to be sterile, disposable and used only once; in some places, needles may be reused if they are first resterilized, ”e.g.” in an autoclave.
Several styles of Japanese acupuncture use ”non-inserted needling”, making for an entirely non-invasive procedure. In non-inserted needling the needle is brought to the skin, but never penetrates it, and various other acupuncture tools are used to tap or stroke along the meridians. Notable examples of these styles are Tōyōhari and the pediatric acupuncture style Shōnishin.
Needle insertion is painless
Some people are afraid that acupuncture will hurt, but the needles used are nothing like hypodermic needles. Acupuncture needles are very fine, around 0.2 mm in width. The needles are inserted into specific points on the skin, with the depth of penetration depending on the symptom or disorder to be treated, and the location of the acupuncture point. The only sensation commonly felt around the insertion site is perhaps a slight warmth or tingling.
Safety compared with other treatments
Commenting on the relative safety of acupuncture compared with other treatments, the NIH consensus panel stated that “adverse side effects of acupuncture are extremely low and often lower than conventional treatments.” They also stated:
””the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same condition. For example, musculoskeletal conditions, such as fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, and tennis elbow… are conditions for which acupuncture may be beneficial. These painful conditions are often treated with, among other things, anti-inflammatory medications (aspirin, ibuprofen, ”etc.”) or with steroid injections. Both medical interventions have a potential for deleterious side effects but are still widely used and are considered acceptable treatments.””
Surveys Confirm the Safety of Acupuncture
When asked why they use alternative forms of care, one of the most common responses people give is safety.
Because treatments such as acupuncture and herbal medicine are considered more “natural” and less invasive than drugs, surgery or other conventional methods, there is a natural perception that these methods are also safer, and that alternative care patients are less likely to suffer an adverse reaction than those treated with conventional medicine.
For decades, members of the alternative and conventional health care arenas have argued that their method of care is safer. Only in the past few years, however, has any scientific evidence emerged to support the contentions of either side. The latest case in point: a pair of studies published in the September 1 issue of the British Medical Journal,1,2 which examined the incidence of adverse events in patients during and immediately after acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture is much safer than most western medical treatments.
To support that statement, I will cite such phenomenally credible sources as:
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) – several places
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER)
- The British Medical Journal (BMJ)
- The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists
- 7 peer-reviewed medical journals found on the National Library of Medicine’s MedLine
- Studies of data from malpractice claims
- Retrospective studies (from America and the U.K.) of more than 100,000 acupuncture treatments
“One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions. As an example, musculoskeletal conditions, such as fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, and tennis elbow, or epicondylitis, are conditions for which acupuncture may be beneficial.
“These painful conditions are often treated with, among other things, anti-inflammatory medications (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) or with steroid injections. Both medical interventions have a potential for deleterious side effects but are still widely used and are considered acceptable treatments. The evidence supporting these therapies is no better than that for acupuncture.” – National Institutes of Health Consensus Statement on Acupuncture, 1997
What’s the worst that can happen from acupuncture – and did it?
The most serious adverse events possible with acupuncture are pneumothorax (collapsing the lung due to puncture) and septicemia (systemic infection of the blood by bacteria); “Instruction is given by both lectures and practical training and includes information about anatomically risky depth of insertion and use of aseptic procedure for puncturing… Most important, no serious events such as pneumothorax, spinal lesion, or infection were reported.
What Can Acupuncture Treat? You will be surprised, because while acupuncture is mostly known in this country for the treatment of pain, the World Health Organization published a short list of conditions seen as appropriate for treatment with acupuncture. This is not an exhaustive list, only some examples, so if you don’t see something listed ask your acupuncturist!
The list includes: