A 79-year-old woman from Portugal got quite the shock after her first ever acupuncture experience. Suffering acute pain, tiredness, and breathing difficulties she sought medical attention soon after and was diagnosed with a collapsed lung.
Her condition was diagnosed by doctors at the Centro Hospitalar Universitario de Lisboa Central, who detail their findings in BMJ Case Reports. An X-ray of her chest determined that she was suffering from pneumothorax, aka a collapsed lung, a condition where air gets into the space between the lung and chest wall. This air pushes on the lung, causing it to cave in.
In this scenario, the patient’s right lung had been indented by about 2.3 centimeters (1 inch). She had visited the acupuncturist in an attempt to curb chronic upper back pain, and a needle was inserted close to her shoulder blade. Here, the lung can come very close to the skin, so the needle literally pricked the space between her lung and chest wall, known as the pleural cavity, which caused her lung to collapse.
Thankfully, with medical care, she recovered unscathed. Doctors had to insert a chest tube, a device used to remove air and fluid from the pleural cavity, and she was given oxygen and pain medication. After being kept under observation for a few days, she was discharged from the hospital.
You might be hoping that this case was just a one-off, but bizarrely it seems collapsed lungs due to acupuncture aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, “pneumothorax is known as the most common serious complication following acupuncture,” according to a 2013 report detailing two incidences of acupuncture-related pneumothorax in Denmark.
Meanwhile, a review published in 2016 found evidence of 128 reported cases in China, where the practice originates, and 51 cases elsewhere. The article, written by Chinese scientists, notes that Western medical books often ignore the fact that acupuncture is actually an “important cause” of pneumothorax. In the grand scheme of things, the issue is still rarely reported, just not as rarely as one might assume.
Widely described as an “alternative medicine”, whether acupuncture actually has any benefits is hotly debated. Scientific evidence is mixed, with some studies suggesting it might help to reduce pain and others finding that it has no effects at all.
The latest case simply highlights the fact that acupuncturists need to have a very detailed knowledge of the human body and make their patients aware of the potential risks the practice can pose. While very rare, deaths from acupuncture have been reported, usually due to needles penetrating vital organs. If you’re thinking about getting acupuncture, it’s a good idea to get your doctor’s opinion first and be sure to visit a well-regarded and fully licensed acupuncturist.
"Despite being considered relatively safe, acupuncture is an invasive procedure and carries undeniable risk of complications," write the case report's authors, noting that their patient "had not been properly informed of the possible adverse events."