‘Acupuncture isn’t worth the risk for cyclists’

Expert opinion: Edzard Ernst is Emeritus Professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter and author of A Scientist in Wonderland

The subject of acupuncture is more complex than many people realise. Most acupuncturists use needles, but some also employ heat, electrical currents, ultrasound and pressure in the hope of stimulating acupuncture points on a wide range of body parts from the ears to the feet, and even the hands and tongue.

But can acupuncture really help an injured cyclist get better?

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Some acupuncturists employ the traditional Chinese approach, claiming that life forces need to be rebalanced by acupuncture to restore health.

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By contrast, ‘Western’ acupuncturists tend to adhere to the concepts of conventional medicine and cite neurophysiological theories for acupuncture’s purported effectiveness. All of which make it a very confusing subject.

The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are uncounted and often bizarre. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is a ‘cure-all’.

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According to a more scientific view, it might work symptomatically for pain but little else and is less effective than conventional medicine. Arch-sceptics will even insist that acupuncture is nothing more than a ‘theatrical placebo’.

Contrary to widespread belief, acupuncture is not free of risks. Mild side-effects including pain and/or bleeding occur in about 10 per cent of all patients.

In rare cases, acupuncture needles can injure vital organs like the lungs, the spinal cord, major blood vessels or the heart, and can introduce infections into the body.

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About 100 fatalities are on record; because there is no effective monitoring system, this figure may represent the tip of an iceberg.

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If you are considering acupuncture to treat a cycling injury, or for any other problem for that matter, my advice is this: in most situations, the known risks of acupuncture fail to convincingly outweigh its proven benefits.

It is never a cure, and I am not aware of any condition for which it is preferable to the conventional therapeutic options.