Friday’s issue of The New Zealand Medical Journal includes a case report of pneumothrorax in a recipient of acupuncture. For the interested layperson out there a pneumothorax in the collection of air in the space between the lung and chest wall leading in extreme cases to cardiac arrest. Acupuncture can result in pneumothorax when the needle is inserted into the lung tissue while the patient is breathing leading to the laceration of the lung and air being forced out of the lung and into the pleural cavity1. Mmm-mmm, gimmie some of that lung collapsing goodness.

Now lest I give the impression that complications from acupuncture use are common I will hasten to add that they are not. One paper estimates the rate of serious adverse events at approximately 1 per 20,ooo patients2. Though if we look at the rates of acupuncture use in the United States as an example, as of about 2007 approximately 1% of the population reported using acupuncture in the previous 12 months3. This translates to about 155 serious adverse effects per year. Another study found over 2% of patients reported adverse reactions that required treatment4, commonly for bleeding or pain. Multiply these figures by the likely worldwide numbers of people receiving acupuncture.

Lets compare this with the conventional medical field, the drug Terfenadine marketed under the trade name Seldane (Teldane here in NZ) was removed from the market in the US due to increased risk of cardiac arrhythmia when used in conjunction with certain other drugs. This expressed itself as a risk of 0.04 – 0.08 per million “defined daily doses”5. Once a replacement drug came on the market Terfenadine was taken off.

Pneumothorax as a complication from acupuncture is  rare even in this subgroup. More common is infection. As I’ve noted before6, the underlying theory of acupuncture is the manipulation of life energies (Qi or Chi), blockages or imbalances in which are the cause of disease. If such is the case then why should the treating physician7 bother with proper antiseptic technique? I suspect that most modern practitioners are however not so far down the rabbit-hole that they have thrown away germ theory completely, at least the outward practical side involved in cleaning and sterilising implements. Which is why even infections are still relatively infrequent.

I would like to point out however that given the implausibility of the treatment basis, coupled with the fact that most large well designed studies find no benefit beyond placebo does make the existence of any complications ethically troubling. If your treament is no more than an elaborate placebo, are you willing to suffer adverse effects because of it? As reported by Dr Novella of Science Based Medicine8, a recent review of acupuncture admitted that sham (placebo) acupuncture was as good a “real” acupuncture.

Lets delve into the definition of “sham” acupuncture a little more to give the proper context to this revelation. Whereas “real” acupuncture depends on the proper insertion of the needles in specific meridian points on the body sham acupuncture can be considered to be either the placement of needles into non-meridian points, or the use of implements that feel like needles to the patients but do not pierce the skin like toothpicks9. This indicates that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles and it doesn’t even matter if you stick the needles. How then can we conclude that acupuncture works if you don’t need to perform the two defining characteristics of acupuncture?

Given this background I find it difficult to imagine why acupuncture continues to be recommended despite convincing evidence of efficacy and indisputable evidence of harm. All medical interventions carry some element of risk, this is then weighed against the potential for benefit. However when there is no benefit any amount of risk must make that equation lopsided with regard to harm. With that in mind, if you are attracted to acupuncture as a therapy let me recommend sham acupuncture as the way to go. All the placebo-y goodness of real acupuncture without the potential for the nasty drawbacks of infection, bleeding, pain or even pneumothorax.

Further reading:

Type “Acupuncture” and “Infection” or “Pneumothorax” into Pubmed as key words and you will find a variety of papers, a selection of which are below:

Acupuncture induced pneumothorax:a case report (not the report mentioned in the post)

Editorial:Acupuncture transmitted infections

Cutaneous Mycobacterium haemophilum infection in a kidney transplant recipient after acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture needle-associated prosthetic knee infection after total knee arthroplasty


1. Clinical analysis on 38 cases of pneumothorax induced by acupuncture or acupoint injection

2. A cumulative review of the range and incidence of significant adverse events associated with acupuncture


4. Safety of acupuncture: results of a prospective observational study with 229,230 patients and introduction of a medical information and consent form.

5. Detection and reporting of drug-induced proarrhythmias: room for improvement

6. Scepticon: Acupuncture

7. And here I use the term loosely.

8.Acupuncture Pseudoscience in the New England Journal of Medicine

9. I kid you not, here are a couple of the studies:
Description and Validation of a Noninvasive Placebo Acupuncture Procedure
A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, and usual care for chronic low back pain

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