Hidden perils of acupuncture: Lost needles, punctured lungs and fainting among NHS horror stories
06:49 GMT, 5 September 2012
Five patients suffered collapsed lungs known as a pneumothorax after the needle accidentally penetrated their chests
Hundreds of NHS patients undergoing acupuncture have suffered complications including dizziness, collapsed lungs and even needles being left in their bodies, researchers warn.
They said the complementary therapy – which involves the skin being punctured with needles – is not as safe as previously thought and in some cases can lead to life-threatening health problems.
Their study found there were 325 reports of patients coming to harm after having acupuncture on the Health Service in just two years.
These included 100 cases of needles being left inside the body, 63 where patients lost consciousness and a further 99 which saw people feeling dizzy or faint.
Another five patients suffered collapsed lungs – known as a pneumothorax – after the needle accidentally penetrated their chests.
The condition can be fatal if victims are not treated immediately, normally by having a tube inserted into their chest to re-inflate the lung.
However, the researchers from the National Patient Safety Agency said the true numbers coming to harm is likely to be far higher because their study only included those who have acupuncture on the NHS and not privately.
The watchdog also pointed out that some people who suffer side effects after the therapy do not bother reporting them.
Professor Edzard Ernst, an expert in complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Truro, Cornwall, who was involved in the research, said: ‘The investigation shows for the first time that acupuncture, as employed within the NHS, is not devoid of risks.
Acupuncture is said to help reduce the withdrawal symptoms of those who have given up smoking, aid weight loss and help to relieve pain during childbirth
‘The adverse events disclosed in this study tend to be mild and rare but there is good reason to suspect that, due to under-reporting, the real size of the problem is substantially larger.’
The study, published in the International Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine, looked at reports of harm following acupuncture on a national database which records all incidents in the NHS.
In 95 per cent of cases the harm was classified as ‘low’ or ‘no harm’.
Nonetheless, the researchers pointed out that even if the injury is deemed to be minor it may still cause considerable discomfort or inconvenience. At present, acupuncture is only prescribed on the NHS to treat lower back pain.
But thousands of others paying for private treatment claim that it has cured a range of ailments including migraines, tooth ache, depression, allergies and even infertility.
Acupuncture, which originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, involves the skin being punctured with needles at specific points to connect with ‘energy pathways’ that run throughout the body.
Supporters say the treatment keeps this ‘energy’ flowing and that the therapy can affect the nervous system, muscle tone, hormone outputs, circulation, antibody production and allergic responses.
It is also said to help reduce the withdrawal symptoms of those who have given up smoking, aid weight loss and help to relieve pain during childbirth.
However, critics claim that it is just a placebo whereby patients convince themselves they feel better following treatment.
In theory anyone can practise acupuncture and there is no requirement for them to hold any particular qualifications.
There are some organisations that ‘practitioners’ can join if they have passed certain exams and agree to follow codes of practice.