Does alternative medicine generate more good than harm? Two leading scientists give their verdict

Just how safe is alternative medicine?

Here, in the second part of our series, Professor Edzard Ernst and scientist Simon Singh explain how "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "safer".

Most people view alternative medicine as a safe option. On the other hand, conventional medicine is often criticised because of the side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs or the risks associated with surgery. But does alternative medicine generate more good than harm?

We saw last week that chiropractic therapy carries a range of risks - so, too, do other alternative therapies.

Studies have shown that acupuncture treatments can result in slight pain, bleeding or bruising.
These adverse reactions are only minor and transient, but they occur in roughly 10 per cent of patients so are relatively common. Slightly more serious side-effects include fainting, dizziness and vomiting, but these are less common and usually associated with anxious patients who may have a fear of needles.

Although most patients may accept such risks as an unsurprising consequence of being pierced with needles, there are two serious adverse effects to consider.

The first is infection. There have been several documented cases of patients contracting diseases such as hepatitis. The journal Hepatology documented how 35 out of 366 patients contracted hepatitis B from an acupuncture clinic in America. The infection was caused by re-using needles that have not been properly sterilised, and part of the problem may be due to the Chinese tradition of storing needles in alcohol solutions, which is not sufficient to protect against hepatitis viruses.

The second is that needles might puncture a major nerve or organ. For example, needling at the base of the skull can lead to brain damage, and there are more than 60 reported cases of punctured lungs.

Most worrying of all, there is a report of an acupuncturist inserting a needle in the chest of an Austrian patient which pierced her heart and killed her. Normally, needling at this point is entirely safe because the sternum protects the heart, but one in 20 people have a hole in that bone which cannot be felt or seen.

Although acupuncture carries some common and serious risks, it is important to stress that the common risks are not at all serious and the serious risks are not at all common - they need to be seen in the context of the millions of treatments given each year.

Source - Daily Mail

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