Safety in Acupuncture Therapy: Risk and Harms | Healthy Seminars

Safety in Acupuncture Therapy: Risk and Harms

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Safety in Acupuncture Therapy: Risk and Harms

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Acupuncture therapies have a relative risk that is low. The reporting of adverse events in clinical trials as well as safety surveys has helped establish a positive safety record for acupuncture needling in the West. Patients may experience minor side effects such as feeling relaxed, elated, tired, or having point sensation or itching etc. or slight bleeding and hematoma on needle withdrawal.

Yet deaths have resulted from acupuncture treatment as well as serious infections, organ punctures and other complications clarifying that acupuncture carries a risk of harm. Many acupuncture professionals are not aware of the published cases of acupuncture harms because they may not read the medical literature in general and because cases of harm are not necessarily reported by or back to the practitioner who caused them. They appear in medical journals often as emergency department cases and acupuncture therapy is represented as risky and irresponsible. What is the truth?

Acupuncturists occupy a mythical comfort zone that if there is potential risk of harms, harms will not likely be caused by them. But the risk of harms exists every day in every practice. A practitioner must first know what the real risks are, what has been reported. This module covers systematic reviews on safety as well as an overview of case reports of harms (infections, traumatic lesions to organ, vessel, nerve tissue, bleeding and ‘curious adverse events’) attributed to acupuncture needling.

  1. Assessment of Safety in Acupuncture Profession
    1. Adverse events surveys
    2. Tracking of AE in clinical trials
    3. Reports of cases: from hysterical/inaccurate to accurate and vastly underreported.
  2. Specific area of ethical standards that require review
    1. Common mild side effects
    2. Reports of deep needling damage organ and tissue damage
    3. Broken needles
    4. Reports of infection and pathogens involved including
      1. Staph and MRSA
      2. TB and non-TB mycobacterium
      3. Actinomycosis, Strep, Klebsiella. Gemella
    5. Reports of bleeding and hematoma
    6. Curious other risks: needle coating, tattoos
  3. Standards of safety must involve practitioners be familiar with reports in the literature and updates re risk that may alter safety measure.

Dr. Arya Nielsen is an American acupuncturist taught in the classical lineage of Dr. James Tin Yau So. She graduated in the first class of the first acupuncture college in the United States in 1977 (New England School of Acupuncture). She is a practitioner, teacher, author, and researcher and is considered the Western clinical authority on Gua sha. Dr Nielsen is an Assistant Clinical Professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Family Medicine & Community Health and directs the Acupuncture Fellowship for Inpatient Care at Mount Sinai. Her research includes both the physiology and therapeutic effect of Gua sha, acupuncture therapies for acute care and the inpatient setting as well as research on the treatment of chronic pain in underserved populations. Dr. Nielsen is the author of the textbook Gua Sha, A Traditional Technique for Modern Practice, (also in German, French and Italian) now in its second edition. She also filmed Gua Sha: Step-by-Step a teaching DVD. Arya teaches internationally on topics related to East Asian medicine and Integrative medicine she developed and teaches the Gua sha Certification Course with ProD Seminars ( as well as courses on safe and ethical practice standards, evidence for acupuncture and traditional East Asian modalities, and inpatient hospital-based acupuncture therapy. Dr. Nielsen is the Chair of the Policy Working Group for the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine & Health, the 70 plus North American member organization of academic medical centers and health systems that support utilization of evidence-based nonpharmacologic therapies as integrative medical care. Arya served on a 2014 Joint Commission Stakeholder Panel on pain that led to their clarification (2015) that nonpharmacologic therapies be included in treatment strategies. Arya can be contacted by email at or at her website

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