Acupuncture is a practice derived from traditional Chinese medicine, in which needles are inserted through the skin for therapeutic effect. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, acupuncture is generally accepted as a safe treatment. NCCAM notes, however, that potentially severe complications may occur if acupuncture is administered by an unqualified practitioner. Nerve damage, although rare, is one of acupuncture’s known complications. To find a reputable acupuncturist, NCCAM recommends consulting your health care provider.
Acupuncture Points and the Nervous System
Acupuncturists insert needles at specific acupuncture points, which lie along pathways called meridians. These meridians form an interconnecting network throughout the body, through which vital energy is thought to flow. Some acupuncture points lie over muscles or organs, but many others lie over nerves, and when the needle is inserted deeply enough, direct trauma to the nerve can result. Nerve damage can also occur when acupuncture needles break off inside the body, and later migrate to a location where they cause nerve injury.
Direct Nerve Injuries During Treatment
In a 1999 study published in the "Archives of Family Medicine," researchers surveyed worldwide reports of complications from acupuncture published between 1966 and 1998. They noted that direct nerve injuries were rare but potentially serious. In one case, damage to the fibular nerve in the lower leg caused complete paralysis of that nerve along with impaired motor functions. A review published in the "Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine" in 2011 found that the safe depth for acupuncture needle insertion varies from patient to patient and is influenced by factors such as gender and body size.
Broken Needles and Needle Migration
The 1999 study also found instances of nerve damage caused by the migration of broken acupuncture needles within the body. In a form of acupuncture practiced in Japan, needles are inserted into the skin and then intentionally broken, leaving fragments permanently embedded in the body. In one case, a needle tip migrated over time into the patient’s wrist, damaging the median nerve. In four of 10 cases dealing with spinal injuries, the study found that needle migration was responsible for the injury.
Acupuncture and Nerve Damage Prevention
The authors of both the 1999 and 2011 studies agreed that most acupuncture complications reported would have been preventable with sufficient training and anatomic knowledge. Many of the thousands of acupuncture practitioners in the U.S. include physicians and dentists who have already undergone medical training. NCCAM also notes that many states require a license to practice acupuncture, although training standards differ from state to state.
Meg Kramer is a Brooklyn-based musician and writer. She holds a B.A. in creative writing from the New School, as well as a diploma in audio engineering from the Institute for Audio Research.