Is acupuncture safe – the need for proper regulation

Ellen White

Recent news that Ellen White, England’s leading women’s goal scorer retired early due in part to suffering a pneumothorax after acupuncture treatment has had extensive coverage in the media and has brought into sharp focus the safety of acupuncture.

So, what is a pneumothorax? It’s when air gets into the space between the lung and the chest wall causing the lung to collapse either fully or in part. This makes breathing very hard and painful. It can happen spontaneously due to a number of factors (lung disease, smoking, genetics, etc.). It is fairly rare, with 16 cases per 100,000 for men and 6 per 100,000 for women. Tall thin men have a higher incidence than most. It also can be caused by blunt or penetrating chest injury.

In Ellen White’s case it has been reported that her club, Manchester City had not used one of their acupuncturists but had brought in an external “specialist” to treat her back spasms and as a result the needle had punctured her lung. Details of the incident are yet to be fully disclosed and the story appears to be “evolving”.

I hope that full details are disclosed in time but it does highlight the need for practitioners of acupuncture to be competently trained and certified if the public is to have confidence in them.

Currently, anyone can set up as an acupuncturist and start treating people. No accreditation is required. And there are a lot of people who dabble in acupuncture with either very little or inadequate training. Oddly, if you wish to practice acupuncture on an animal you have to be a trained vet in the first instance. Not so when it comes to humans!

My regulatory body, the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), is the main regulatory body for acupuncturists in the UK. It ensures the following:

  • extensive training – minimum three years degree level – with relevant Western medicine input in subjects like anatomy and physiology
  • adherence to the BAcC codes of safe practice and professional conduct
  • compliance with current health and safety legislation
  • full cover for medical malpractice and public/products liability
  • mandatory continuing professional development to keep knowledge and skills up to date

The BAcC have been campaigning to force the Government to ensure that those that practice acupuncture in the UK are properly trained, certified and registered with a professional body. The BAcC’s work is overseen by the Professional Standards Authority for Health & Social Care.

When looking for an acupuncturist I would encourage people to check to see if the practitioner you choose is a member of a recognised body such as BAcC – and it’s easily done – in my case just go to the British Acupuncture Council website and click on the tab “Who we are” followed by  “Find an acupuncturist” and type in my name.

News stories such as Ellen White’s are deeply damaging to our profession and may put people off seeking treatment when there may be no real grounds for concern. Objectively, statistics show that acupuncture remains a very safe form of complementary alternative therapy. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) recommends it, over conventional medications, for dealing with chronic pain and depression and for headaches. The community based organisation, Evidence Based Acupuncture, lists many other conditions that respond to acupuncture.