Acupuncture is safe for children, a recent large study in the journal Pediatrics said, but only in the hands of a trained practitioner.
The meta study—or analysis of 37 international studies—found that about one in 10 children experienced mild side effects like bruising, pain and numbness at the puncture site. But more serious side effects like infections and nerve impairment were rare.
“I would say the circumstances in which the serious harms happened do not reflect the modern-day standard of training and credentialing,” said Dr. Sunita Vohra, a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta on Canada and an author of the study.
The results of the large study, undertaken by the University of Alberta researchers were reported by the New York Times on Nov 22.
The study was the first large-scale systematic review on the safety of acupuncture in children. Previously, large studies focused on acupuncture in adults and found similar complication rates: Serious side effects occurred in about five of every million treatment sessions.
Acupuncture is one of the most common alternative healing practices in the United States, used by about three million people every year.
Increasingly, it is being used to relieve pain, migraines and other complaints in children. About 150,000 children in the U.S. underwent acupuncture in 2007, according to government estimates.
In the study, researchers focused specifically on children, combing through data of 37 international studies conducted over the past few decades, including both high-quality randomized trials and single case reports of injuries.
The research, financed in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, did not try to answer whether acupuncture is actually effective in children. It only sought to consolidate the results of all previous studies on pediatric acupuncture.
In all, out of 1,422 children and teenagers who were included in the analysis, 168 experienced “mild” side effects.
More serious problems were rare and tended to be limited to clinics that did not adhere to strict safety standards.
These included 12 cases of “deformity” from damage to a muscle in the thumb, all reported from the same clinic in China between 1983 and 1989.
In another case, a 15-year-old boy in the U.S. had to be treated extensively with antibiotics when he developed a fever after undergoing acupuncture and chiropractic treatment for back pain.
“That kind of practice is not what would be expected in most places,” Dr. Vohra said.
According to the New York Times, most American states and Canadian provinces now regulate acupuncture to ensure certain standards of safety and certification, but regulations vary by state.
In contrast, the practice of acupuncture is not regulated in the United Kingdom.
“This means that anyone can call themselves an acupuncturist, even if they have no training or experience,” U.K.’S official health regulator said.
But acupuncture is safe when carried out by a qualified practitioner, the National Health Service said on its website. Serious side effects or complications arising from treatment are extremely rare.
“If you want to visit an acupuncturist, it is important to check that they carry out the treatment in a way that is safe, hygienic and acceptable to you,” the NHS warned.
The health agency also advised consumers to visit the websites of acupuncture organizations that require their members to bear certain qualifications and work according to certain codes of practice.
Need for more studies
Most acupuncture practitioners in the U.S. agree that while acupuncture works as well in children and adults, more studies are needed to look into the particular effects on children.