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Side effects after acupuncture treatment


Q:  My friend got acupuncture yesterday and in the evening after the session felt extremely overwhelmed and was upset and crying. She is being treated for anxiety and general overwork/stress over the last 4 years at least. She said it was painful when the needles wherein her. This is not her first session. Is this a normal reaction, and if so, is it a good sign?

A:  The first and most important thing to say is that serious and continuing adverse effects from acupuncture treatment are very rare. When things do happen after treatment, be they unusual headaches, a slight feeling of dizziness, extreme tiredness after the first session, and occasionally a significant emotional release, many practitioners will take this as a very positive sign that the balance of the system is being restored. The accepted belief is that when the body is not in balance it retains areas of disturbance or blockages, and once balance begins to be restored the disturbances surface as short term, and sometimes quite unpleasant, effects.

When these are physical, we tend to keep a close eye on what happens. The usual extent of a disturbance like this is 24-48 hours. Anything more than that we would look carefully at other possibilities. One is that the treatment has uncovered another blockage which wasn't noticeable to begin with and this is now generating symptoms. It's only when the rain falls that you find out that your gutters are blocked, and in the same way, when someone is very depleted it is only when the energy flow is much stronger that a pre-existing blockage surfaces as a problem.

The other main issue is that the symptom may not be anything to do with the treatment, and we are very clear with our members that they should not waste time arguing whether acupuncture did or did not cause a symptom but first and foremost ensure that someone gets the treatment they need. There is very often a temptation to succumb to the 'post hoc propter hoc' fallacy, that because something happened after treatment it must have been caused by the treatment. This is often not the case - after all, the practitioners spends one hour of the 168 in a week with a patient, and the patient's life carries on with all its normal complexity around that. However, there are ways and ways of making this point, and if this is not done adeptly, it starts to sound like 'it wasn't my fault' which is often taken as a refusal to admit liability.

In your friend's case it may well be that the treatment has uncovered something which she is now experiencing as an outpouring of a none too pleasant emotion, but if this is the case, then the treatment should be moving her forward, and future treatments will help her to move beyond the feeling of being overwhelmed. It is also possible, however, that there are other factors in life which may also have had an impact. We are certain that her practitioner will explore this with sensitivity when she goes to her next session.

As for the needles being quite painful, there is often a correlation between how people experience the needles and how settled in themselves they feel, and although this is a comment based on experience rather than research, people with anxiety issues are often highly reactive to the physical impact of being needled. However, the fact that she experienced these particular needles as more painful than ones she has had previously, and the effect being much more tangible, there is just a possibility that the treatment may have been too strong for her. We do find a small number of patients for whom too many needles or too vigorous a reaction can wobble them for a few days, and an experienced practitioner will know to reduce the number of needles and strength of needling if the feedback makes them suspect that a person is sensitive in this fashion.

All of these issues are worth discussing with the practitioner, and we are often surprised that people feel any diffidence at all about confronting practitioners with these sorts of questions. Our members are perfectly happy to go through all aspects of treatment with their patients, and believe that good communication is essential to good treatment.