Expert opinion: ‘Acupuncture is safe, Professor Ernst is wrong’

Expert opinion: Mark Bovey is research manager at the Acupuncture Research Resource Centre/The British Acupuncture Council, and he's written in response to an article by Edzard Ernst

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In my view, Professor Edzard Ernst’s claim about 100 fatalities having resulted from acupuncture was unduly alarmist.

He failed to address key questions. Where does his figure come from, over what period and in which countries? How many acupuncture treatments in total were given during this time; how frequently do fatalities occur? Were the acupuncturists involved properly trained, and how many of the deaths could definitely be tied to acupuncture as the cause?

Without this background information or references, Ernst’s article risks falling into the category of misleading sensationalism.

Investigations of reported fatalities have shown that some cannot be substantiated as being caused by the acupuncture; one, included in a study by Ernst, was self-inflicted with a sewing needle!

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Fatalities, of which there have been few, have diminished steadily since the Nineties, with better hygiene practices and practitioner training.

Many unsafe practices recorded worldwide over the last 50 years would never have happened if current UK professional safe practice guidelines had been followed.

Acupuncture treatment is not absolutely risk-free, but its degree of risk is comparatively low.

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The best European scientific studies of acupuncture adverse events reported no fatalities in three million treatments. Ernst himself co-wrote, in a 2009 paper, that “acupuncture can be considered inherently safe in the hands of well-trained practitioners.”

Most NHS acupuncture treatments are for musculoskeletal pain, for which the conventional alternative would often involve anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications such as ibuprofen.

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One in 1,200 people taking NSAIDS for at least two months (estimated as 2,000 people per year in the UK) will die of gastrointestinal complications as a consequence.

There is strong scientific evidence that acupuncture is effective for pain (Vickers 2012) but let someone very relevant to CW readers have the final word: six-time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy: “Over the years, acupuncture and deep tissue massage have formed an integral part of my physical therapy routine. I have found it incredibly effective for both injury treatment and prevention.”