Doctors took a pretty normal approach when an elderly woman went to the hospital following an accidental fall and reported symptoms of a urinary tract infection. What they found was anything but normal.
The 94-year-old woman of Korean heritage said she was having generalized pain, but she couldn’t pinpoint where it was occurring; the muscles surrounding her spine and those in her hip were not tender to the touch. In order to rule out any acute fractures, doctors ordered routine X-rays to be done of her chest, hip, and spine.
Upon their return, the X-rays showed multiple “filament-like densities” surrounding her spine – an abnormal find, indeed. Naturally, doctors called for a more detailed CT scan of the woman’s thorax, which confirmed several needles had been retained in her paraspinal musculature, or the muscles surrounding her spine. The case was published in BMJ Case Reports, and you can see the X-rays here).
The woman was recently diagnosed with severe dementia, but caregivers were able to confirm that she had visited a traditional Korean Hari acupuncturist in Canada 30 years ago. Originating from Japan and Korea, this rare form of acupuncture practices the purposeful retention of acupuncture needles in a patient’s innermost layer of skin, known as subcutaneous tissue, in order to provide continuous pain relief. Traditional acupuncture, on the other hand, administers temporary needles measuring about 1 millimeter in diameter and 10 to 15 millimeters in length to the outermost layers of the skin to similarly relieve pain.
At the time of her procedure, gold needles – a representation of financial wealth in Korean culture – were permanently placed along the woman’s back and hip girdle to alleviate musculoskeletal pain.
As the doctors note, this may “subsequently lead to alarming imaging findings” later in life. The science is inconclusive as to whether or not Hari acupuncture actually works or not, but the migration of needles from subcutaneous tissues to the intra-abdominal organs have been reported before. In one case, X-rays revealed permanently implanted needles in the chest of a 68-year-old woman. Another occurred in a car crash victim who similarly had needles embedded in their neck, chest, abdomen, and pelvis.
“To our knowledge, this case details the longest latency of retained acupuncture needles before clinical or radiographical detection,” wrote the authors in BMJ Case Reports. “Fortunately, the patient did not suffer any immediate adverse consequences, though was subjected to unnecessary investigations.”