Several months ago, my co-workers and I once again re-visited the contentious issue of acupuncture’s safety. We published several articles on the topic none of which, I am afraid to say, was much appreciated by the slightly myopic world of acupuncture. The paper which created overt outrage and prompted an unprecedented amount of hate-mail was the one on deaths after acupuncture. This publication reported that around 90 fatalities associated with acupuncture had been documented in the medical literature.

The responses from acupuncturists ranged from disbelief to overt hostility. Acupuncturists the world over seemed to agree that there was something profoundly wrong with me personally and with my research; they all knew that acupuncture was entirely safe and that I was maliciously incorrect and merely out to destroy their livelihood.

So, am I alarmist or am I just doing my duty in reporting important facts? Two new articles might go some way towards answering this intriguing question.

The first is a review by Chinese acupuncturists who summarised all the adverse events published in the Chinese literature, a task which my article may have done only partially. The authors found 1038 cases of serious adverse events, including 35 fatalities. The most frequent non-fatal adverse events were syncope (468 cases), pneumothorax (307 cases), and subarachnoid hemorrhage (64 cases). To put this into context, we ought to know that the Chinese literature is hopelessly biased in favour of acupuncture. Thus the level of under-reporting can be assumed to be even larger than in English language publications.

The second new article is by a Swedish surgeon who aimed at systematically reviewing the literature specifically on vascular injuries caused by acupuncture. His literature searches found 31 such cases; the majority of these patients developed symptoms in direct connection with the acupuncture treatment. Three patients died, two from pericardial tamponade and one from an aortoduodenal fistula. There were 7 more tamponades, 8 pseudoaneurysms, two with ischemia, two with venous thrombosis, one with compartment syndrome and 7 with bleeding (5 in the central nervous system). The two patients with ischemia suffered lasting sequeleae.

The answer to the question asked above seems thus simple: the Chinese authors, the Swedish surgeon (none of whom I know personally or have collaborated with) and I are entirely correct and merely report the truth. And the truth is that acupuncture can cause severe complications through any of the following mechanisms:

1) puncturing the lungs resulting in a pneumothorax,

2) puncturing the heart causing a cardiac tamponade,

3) puncturing blood vessels causing haemorrhage,

4) injuring other vital structures in the body,

5) introducing bacteria or viruses resulting in infections.

Any of these complications can be severe and might, in dramatic cases, even lead to the death of the patient.

But we have to have the right perspective! These are extremely rare events! Most other treatments used in medicine are much much more risky! To keep banging on about such exotic events is not helpful! I can hear the acupuncture world shout in unison.

True, these are almost certainly rare events – but we have no good idea how rare they are. There is no adverse event reporting scheme in acupuncture, and the published cases are surely only the tip of the ice-berg. True, most other medical treatments carry much greater risks! And true, we need to have the right perspective in all of this!

So let’s put this in a reasonable perspective: with most other treatments, we know how effective they are. We can thus estimate whether the risks outweigh the benefit, and if we find that they do, we should (and usually do) stop using them. I am not at all sure that we can perform similar assessments in the case of acupuncture.

In 2010, I have reviewed the deaths which have been reported after chiropractic treatments. My article suggested that 26 fatalities had been published in the medical literature and many more might have remained unpublished. The alleged pathology usually was a vascular accident involving the dissection of a vertebral artery. Whenever I write about the risks of spinal manipulation, chiropractors say that I am irresponsible and alarmist. Yet I believe I am merely doing my duty in alerting health care professionals and the public to the possibility that this intervention is associated with harm and that caution is therefore recommended.

Fortunately, I am not alone, as a new report from China shows.This review summarised published cases of injuries associated with cervical manipulation in China, and to describe the risks and benefits of the therapy.

A total of 156 cases met the inclusion criteria. They included the following problems: syncope = 45 cases , mild spinal cord injury or compression = 34 cases, nerve root injury = 24 cases, ineffective treatment or symptom increased = 11 cases ; cervical spine fracture = 11 cases, dislocation or semiluxation = 6 cases, soft tissue injury = 3 cases, serious accident = 22 cases including paralysis, death and cerebrovascular accident. Manipulation including rotation was involved in 42.00%, 63 cases). 5 patients died.

The authors conclude that “it is imperative for practitioners to complete the patients’ management and assessment before manipulation. That the practitioners conduct a detailed physical examination and make a correct diagnosis would be a pivot method of avoiding accidents. Excluding contraindications and potential risks, standardizing evaluation criteria and practitioners’ qualification, increasing safety awareness and risk assessment and strengthening the monitoring of the accidents could decrease the incidence of accidents” (I do apologize for the authors’ poor English).

It is probable that someone will now calculate that the risk of harm is minute. Chinese traditional healers seem to use spinal manipulation fairly regularly, so the incidence of complications would be one in several millions.

Such calculations are frequently made by chiropractors in an attempt to define the incidence rates of risks associated with chiropractic in the West. They look convincing but, in fact, they are complete nonsense.

The reason is that under-reporting can be huge. Clinical trials of chiropractic often omit any mention of adverse effects (thus violating publication ethics) and, in our case-series, under-reporting was precisely 100% (none of the cases we discovered had been recorded anywhere). This means that these estimates are entirely worthless.

I sincerely hope that the risk turns out to be extremely low – but without a functioning reporting system for such events, we might as well read tea-leaves.

I don’t suppose that many readers of this blog believe all things natural to be entirely safe, but the general public seems to be hard-wired victims of this myth: Mother Nature is benign, and herbal remedies must be harmless!

There are, of course, several reasons why supposedly “natural” herbal treatments can be unsafe. Plants extracts can be toxic, they might interact with prescribed drugs or they can be contaminated or adulterated.

The latter two terms describe similar but not identical phenomena: contamination means the accidental addition of substances which should not be present in an herbal remedy; and adulteration signifies the deliberate addition of ingredients. If the substances in question are not pharmacologically inert, their presence in herbal remedies can cause adverse effects.

Both contamination and adulteration break laws and regulations; both are therefore illegal. Sadly, this does not mean that such things do not happen.

We have recently published an overview of the existing knowledge in this area. For this purpose, we summarised the evidence from 26 previously published reviews. Our findings were interesting but far from reassuring: the most commonly found contaminants were dust, pollen, insects, rodents, parasites, microbes, fungi, mould, pesticides, and heavy metals. The adulterants invariably were prescription drugs such as steroids, anti-diabetic medications etc.

These substances were implicated in a wide range of serious adverse effects in the unfortunate patients who took the remedies in question: agranulocytosis, meningitis, multi-organ failure, stroke, arsenic poisoning, mercury poisoning, lead poisoning, caner, encephalopathy, hepato-renal syndrome, kidney damage, rhabdomyolosis, metabolic acidosis, renal failure, liver failure, cerebral oedema, coma, and intra-cerebral bleeding. Several patients did not survive.

To avoid such disasters, consumers need to know which types of herbal remedies are most frequently implicated; our review showed that these were foremost Chinese and Indian remedies. While herbal medicines from the US or Europe ought to comply with certain rules and regulations regarding their quality and safety, Chinese and Indian herbal mixtures frequently enter our countries illegally or are bought from dubious sources, for instance, over the Internet. It is this type of herbal remedy that we should be concerned about.

We have to ask whether the risks outweigh the proven benefits of Chinese or Indian herbal mixtures. The short answer to this question is NO. There is very little compelling evidence to suggest that these treatments are efficacious. In the absence of proven benefit, even small or rare risks weigh heavily.

If the risk-benefit profile for any medical intervention fails to be positive, there can only be one reasonable conclusion regarding the use of this therapy – and that is: DON’T DO IT!

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