Don’t believe in Acupuncture Side-Effects?

Can one expect side-effects from this pose?
Photo by Form on Unsplash

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.



Acupuncture points in the ear
Auricular acupuncture also has good side-effects

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 person. Unlike orthodox (Western) medicine, which sometimes treats particular symptoms without too much regard for the health of the whole, (see Suppression), acupuncture treatments cannot always be absolutely precise in their side-effects.

As a result, the effects of treatment can flow in many directions. This means that an acupuncture side-effect can be beneficial!

Suppose you have aching joints, diagnosed as ‘invasion by cold and damp‘ (Chinese Medicine terminology). Suppose acupuncture treatment cleared this cold and damp. Then you’d feel better in many ways, not least by having a more positive, dare we say ‘sunny’, outlook.

Why? Because if your body has been ‘invaded’ by Cold you will tend to feel slow and low in energy. You will want to avoid cold environments and you’ll prefer warm food – even in summer! In effect, you are diminished.

And Damp makes your body heavy, often with swellings in joints, or oedematous. Stiff and sore, you will often be unable to get comfortable in bed.


Rainy Day
Rainy Days often make people with ‘Damp’ feel worse


In the morning, you will take a while to get going: weary.

And you might start to feel the treatment’s beneficial side effects even before your aching joints started to improve. 

This is because acupuncture’s ‘side-effect’ is to benefit your body’s overall constitution as well as clear the cold and damp.  

… Deficiency …

Because of its ‘deficiency‘ your constitution was originally unable to stop the invasion of damp and cold. So it makes sense to boost your constitution as an intrinsic part of the treatment. The aim is, 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 unexpected directions.

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, based on how people got more ill – or better –  in the West. This is not a Chinese concept. It’s called the Law of Cure.

This was first elaborated by Dr Constantine Hering, a German Doctor who converted to homoeopathy.  He 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:-

  • from the centre outwards
  • in direction from a more important organ to a less important one
  • from above downwards
  • in the reverse order of their original occurrence.


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 third 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.


When your complaint improves but you feel worse – what then?

Suppose you find that a given treatment manages successfully to suppress a problem.

That’s good, isn’t it? Well, not if this is 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.  These are examples 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! This leads 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. See iatrogenic disease. (A small quote from the article says “Around 20 percent of all prescriptions contain an error – from the wrong dose to the wrong drug – and these mistakes could be killing up to 22,000 Britons every year. A similar rate of error, and death, is happening in every country around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.”

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 internalised, eventually weakening the patient’s energy and resistance to disease. Also, of course, requiring ongoing medication.

For more about medicine-caused illness, click here.

Anyhow, on to the 
Research on Acupuncture Side-Effects

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.


Taking notes
Consultations and note-taking


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) 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 comes out: not often, just occasionally.

Deqi – another ‘side-effect’  (Pronounced ‘day-chee’)

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 can be a very positive reaction.

Finally, an acupuncture side-effect frequently observed, indeed looked forward to by patients, is a sensation of calmness.


Calmness and Still life: four persons standing on seashore during day
Photo by Nick Fewings

Many patients go to sleep during treatment and wake feeling much better.

OK Sceptics!

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.

The Bigger Picture

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 that they will go to sleep when certain acupuncture points are used – indeed they ask for them – and not when I use others.

Anyhow, in this case who cares if it’s an acupuncture side-effect?

I have treated thousands of patients over 40 years.  I have no doubt that acupuncture points produce results along the lines described by ancient acupuncturists.  And now, modern acupuncturists who have never been to China are rediscovering this ancient wisdom and knowledge.

Jonathan Brand colours

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