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An acupuncture side effect comes in one of three forms:
1/ Experience and Research show that there are, in a small percentage of patients, minor adverse effects. Any form of medicine or therapy has potential side-effects but acupuncture's record over thousands of years has been very good.
See below for the results of research on this.
2/ Traditional or 'classical' acupuncture is a form of therapy that aims to treat the whole. Unlike orthodox (Western) medicine, which sometimes treats particular symptoms without too much regard for the health of the whole, (see Suppression), acupuncture treatments are seldom able to be absolutely precise in their effects.
As a result, the effects of treatment can flow in many directions. This means that an acupuncture side effect can be beneficial!
If your problem of, say, aching joints, was diagnosed as 'invasion by cold and damp'(Chinese Medicine terminology), and acupuncture treatment cleared the cold and the damp, you'd feel better in a number of ways, not least by having a more positive, dare we say 'sunny', outlook.
And you might start to feel these beneficial side effects even before your aching joints started to improve. This is because acupuncture's 'side-effect', if properly done, is to benefit your body's overall constitution as well as clear the cold and damp.
Behind this is the belief that because of its 'deficiency' your constitution was originally unable to stop the damp and cold, and hence the aching joints. So it makes sense to boost your constitution as an intrinsic part of the treatment, not least to reduce the likelihood of the aching joints recurring.
You might also sleep better, meaning that you'd have more energy the next day. We'd also expect your circulation and appetite to improve - even your libido, perhaps! These are all side-effects, some or all of which might improve before your joints.
By the way! Click here to read about Acupuncture Effectiveness and what the World Health Organisation says about it.
3/ Sometimes your acupuncture side effect goes in other directions that you don't expect. Consequently you may not notice them or even realise they are related to your treatment; so you fail to appreciate their importance.
There is an old law, which was based on observations of how people got iller, or better, hundreds of years ago in the West (this is not a Chinese concept) called the Law of Cure.
(Actually this was first enunciated by Dr Constantine Hering, a German Doctor who converted to homoeopathy and eventually moved to the United States of America in the 19th century. Whether you believe in homoeopathy and the vitalist philosophy of health from which it sprang is neither here nor there: Hering's "Law of Cure" when observed can produce remarkable results.)
In its original form the law stated that a really health-enhancing treatment would tend to make symptoms move:-
Because acupuncture points used for treatment often cover many parts of your body, arms and legs, and may be addressing problems in those areas, the first part of the 'Law of Cure' is less obvious in practice.
But the 'from the centre outwards' and other parts of the 'Law' are often seen.
More importantly, and this is where there is an acupuncture side effect which you definitely need to tell your acupuncturist about, if you find that a given treatment manages successfully to suppress a problem but at the price of, say, your sleep, or mental well-being, or energy (just some examples), or - let's say - it stops your hair falling but you find yourself getting more anxious than you were, then this is an example of the 'Law of Cure' working in the wrong direction.
May we point out, however, that many forms of orthodox (Western) medicine suppress symptoms as a matter of course leading in the long run to just the same internalisation of the problem. Indeed, Western medicine has a very long and undistinguished history of doctor-caused or drug-caused problems.
Just one example: someone with a cough is given medication that stops the cough. Wonderful! Just what the patient wanted. Later, however, and unconnected by either patient or doctor to the cough medicines, the patient develops chronic asthma, for which ongoing medication is necessary.
Both doctor and patient might here claim that the asthma was under control and that therefore the patient was now perfectly healthy.
We would argue quite the opposite - that the disease had been internalised to a greater extent, eventually weakening the patient's energy and resistance to disease.
For more about medicine-caused illness, click here.
Some of our patients in 2001 were kind enough to complete a questionnaire from the Research Director of the Foundation for Traditional Chinese Medicine in York, Yorkshire, UK.
Over some months, there were 34,407 acupuncture treatments on which the questionnaire was based.
A total of 43 significant minor adverse events were reported, a result consistent with, given a 95% probability, an underlying serious adverse event rate of between 0 and 1.1 per 10,000 treatments.
These events included severe nausea and fainting, aggravations of existing symptoms, local pain and bruising at the site of needling and psychological and emotional reactions.
The 574 practitioners who participated in this survey comprised one in three members of the British Acupuncture Council.
That such a large percentage of the total membership of a professional association took part is a measure of acupuncturists' commitment to the safety of their patients.
Compared to existing evidence on the risks associated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, (read more by clicking here or here) acupuncture is a relatively safe intervention when practised by professional acupuncturists who are members of the British Acupuncture Council or, of course, members of other equally responsible acupuncture organisations.
Given that the whole membership (of the British Acupuncture Council) delivers between one and a half and two million treatments a year, this survey provides important evidence on public health and safety.
(The figures quoted above are from 'Safety in Numbers', published on page 13 of the European Journal of Oriental Medicine, Vol 3, No 6: Winter 2002.)
We should add that there is sometimes loss of a drop or two of blood when a needle is removed: not often, but just occasionally.
There is often, also, an acupuncture side effect of a sensation called 'deqi' at or related to the acupuncture point treatment. This is sometimes crampy, or heavy, or hot or cold or described in a number of idiosyncratic ways by individual patients.
The 'deqi' acupuncture side effect sensation often occurs in parts of the body some distance from the acupuncture point. For the acupuncturist, the arrival of this deqi is a very positive reaction.
Finally, an acupuncture side effect frequently observed, indeed looked forward to by patients, is a sensation of calmness. Many patients go to sleep during treatment and wake feeling much better.
Indeed, before I started learning to become an acupuncturist, I went for acupuncture treatment (for mild bronchitis).
My acupuncturist, who subsequently became my mentor and teacher, used one or two points that induced drowsiness (yes, an acupuncture side-effect!) in just about all her patients, while she was inserting other acupuncture needles in points to deal with their complaints.
We all went out like a light!
20 minutes later, when she woke us, we were feeling calm, free from anxiety, and better.
She regarded the inclusion of these points into her treatment plan as being highly conducive to faster healing. And there is no doubt that people did get better, often faster than they had experienced from other acupuncturists at the time.
Not surprisingly, people flocked to her from all over the world!
Do I use such points as a matter of course? No, mainly because I know, usually from immediate feedback from the pulses, whether I've got the treatment plan right. If the patient's pulses don't get better or don't improve as much as I might have hoped, I try to refine my treatment plan first, before resorting to using these 'knock-out' points.
But for some patients, whose pulses are perhaps masked by the heavy medications they are taking, and who, in my opinion, badly need proper relaxation, I may use such points anyway to enhance whatever else I'm doing.
Of course they might have woken feeling better from a nice nap whether or not they'd just had acupuncture treatment.
This neither proves nor disproves that acupuncture works.
It just shows that this form of treatment allows for the patient's health in a broader sense than just inserting pins into acupuncture points. We think that a nice rest in calm surroundings is conducive to healing, whatever the treatment.
But we have patients who know or at least expect that they will go to sleep when certain acupuncture points are used - indeed they ask for them - and not when others are used.
Anyhow, in this case who cares if it's an acupuncture side effect?
Having treated many thousands of patients over 35 years, I have no doubt that acupuncture points produce results along the lines described by ancient acupuncturists, now being rediscovered the world over by modern acupuncturists who have never been to China.
If you live in the Edinburgh area of Scotland, where the author of this site (and of the books described below) works, click on Edinburgh Acupuncturist.
If you live elsewhere, click on BAcC.
3000 years of Chinese being stressed, and at last, here's a book showing how all that experience can help you!
By the author of this website, it explains in simple English how to use stress to improve and enhance your life.
NB You can also order 'Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress' from your bookseller.
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