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Studies Find Acupuncture Safe When Done Skillfully

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - When performed by a skilled practitioner, acupuncture appears to be safe, according to two new studies published in the September 1 issue of the British Medical Journal.

Both studies examined the incidence of adverse effects in patients during and immediately after acupuncture treatment. In a study led by Dr. Hugh MacPherson of the Foundation for Traditional Chinese Medicine, 574 professional acupuncturists performed over 34,000 procedures during a 4-week period. In the second study, led by Dr. Adrian R. White and colleagues at the University of Exeter, 78 medical doctors and physiotherapists performed over 31,000 procedures between June 1998 and February 2000. In both studies, no serious adverse events were noted; only 43 significant adverse effects such as nausea, bruising and fainting were reported in each study.

The results of both studies are statistically similar to previous studies regarding adverse reactions associated with acupuncture. Comparison of the two studies revealed that even though a higher percentage of medical doctors and physiotherapists had been practicing acupuncture for longer than five years (71% compared to 62% for the acupuncturists), the odds of a significant adverse event occurring were slightly higher when acupuncture was performed by a physiotherapist or MD. In addition, there was a higher incidence of patient bleeding during treatment, and more cases of preventable errors-particularly losing a needle or failure to remove a needle-in the MD/physiotherapist survey, even though the number of participants in that survey was far fewer than in the MacPherson survey.

This suggests that even though the medical doctors may have been practicing longer, such longevity does not necessarily equate to increased competency. The level of training and education MDs and physiotherapists receive in acupuncture may not be up to the same standards undertaken by licensed acupuncturists.

Dr. Vincent, a professor of psychology at University College London said, "The conclusion that acupuncture is a very safe intervention in the hands of a competent practitioner seems justified on the evidence available. While the risks of acupuncture cannot be discounted, it certainly seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention".

Study author MacPherson agrees. "Compared to drug treatments for equivalent conditions, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for chronic pain, acupuncture is a very safe therapy. Statistically there is an adverse event rate of less than one serious event in 10,000 treatments".

For more information on these studies, please refer to the British Medical Journal.