Space & Innovation

Acupuncture Can Spread Tuberculosis, Researchers Warn

Dirty needles and other carelessness can spread serious diseases among acupuncture patients.

A new study has found an unusual risk in acupuncture: tuberculosis, which kills over 1 million people each year. While pulmonary tuberculosis is the best known and most common form, the infection can also be spread through skin contact.

Acupuncture, the traditional Chinese treatment of placing of needles in the body, is said to cure people of various ailments. Proponents believe that the needles control energy fields in the human body and treat medical issues. However, the energies that acupuncturists claim to manipulate have never been proven to exist and cannot be detected by any scientific instrument.

The article was published last week on the open-access journal PLoS-ONE and titled "Analysis of 30 Patients with Acupuncture-Induced Primary Inoculation Tuberculosis." In it the researchers described "Seven confirmed and 23 suspected, total 30 patients (13 male and 17 female) with primary inoculation tuberculosis were selected from the same clinic in Wenzhou City, China that specialized in treatment of muscle and soft tissue pain and osteoarthritis of the knee.... Patients ages ranged from 31 to 71 years... had all undergone acupuncture and electrotherapy, administered by the same clinician, once every two days for about two weeks for the treatment of neck, back, elbow, wrist, hip, knee and ankle pain. The procedures took place between May 2011 and August 2011."

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About half of the patients came down with fevers, night sweats and other symptoms; several had open sores and skin lesions. The researchers were unable to pinpoint the exact route of transmission, whether the infections were the result of dirty needles, electrotherapeutic pads or other equipment. However, acupuncture was clearly the common factor; all patients received treatment and have since recovered.

Acupuncture: Risks Versus Benefits This is not the first time that acupuncture has been implicated in the spread of disease. A 2010 study published in the British Medical Journal found that dirty acupuncture needles have caused dozens of serious infections, including hepatitis B and C.

Of course all medical treatments involve risks, so the question becomes one of a cost/benefit analysis: Do the benefits of acupuncture outweigh the risks? The fact is that there is real question in the medical community about whether acupuncture is effective at all.

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Consumer advocate Dr. Steven Novella of the Science-Based Medicine website explains that the scientific evidence for acupuncture is inconsistent. Some studies show some small effect for a limited number of conditions (such as pain relief and anxiety), but many others don't. Furthermore, the conditions that acupuncture is most effective for are those that respond well to the placebo effect.

In other words, acupuncture is no more or less effective than a sugar pill with no active ingredient. Patients feel slightly better because they expect to feel better, not because needles were inserted into special points on their skin to redirect unknown energies. When a drug or treatment works no better than a placebo, in the field of medicine that means it doesn't work.

Novella describes acupuncture as "theatrical placebo" and writes that "Clinical research can never prove that an intervention has an effect size of zero. Rather, clinical research assumes the null hypothesis, that the treatment does not work, and the burden of proof lies with demonstrating adequate evidence to reject the null hypothesis. So, when being technical, researchers will conclude that a negative study 'fails to reject the null hypothesis.' In other words, clinical research may not be able to detect the difference between zero effect and a tiny effect, but at some point it becomes irrelevant.... After decades of research and more than 3,000 trials, acupuncture researchers have failed to reject the null hypothesis, and any remaining possible specific effect from acupuncture is so tiny as to be clinically insignificant. In layman's terms, acupuncture does not work-for anything."

If Dr. Novella and others are correct, then the benefits of acupuncture do not outweigh the risks because there are no proven benefits to acupuncture -- though there are proven risks.

Acupuncture needles

Exactly 20 years ago, on Sept. 19, 1991, German hikers Erika and Helmut Simon spotted something brown while walking near a melting glacier in the Oetztal Alps in South Tyrol. As they got closer, they realized with horror it wasn't a piece of rubbish, but a human corpse lying on its chest against a flat rock.

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Only the back of the head, the bare shoulders and part of the back emerged from the ice and meltwater.

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In the following days, various attempts at recovering the corpse were made. Finally, on Sept. 23, the body was extracted from the ice along with numerous pieces of leather and hide, string, straps and clumps of hay. The mummified body was taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck.

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The mummy lay in a 131-foot-long, 9-foot -deep and 22- foot -wide rocky gully surrounded by steep stone walls at an altitude of 10.531 feet. Since the glacier made it difficult to establish the exact location of the watershed, a controversy arose on which soil -- Italian or Austrian -- it was found. A survey of the border carried out on Oct. 2, 1991 established that the mummy lay 303.67 feet from the border in South Tyrol, in Italy.

The discovery caused a global media sensation. Initially, the mummy was dated to be at least 4,000 years old (later, radio carbon dating established that the man lived around 5,000 years ago, between 3350 and 3100 B.C.). Such an old, well preserved, fully clothed, mummified body had never before been seen.

Between July 20 and Aug. 25, 1992, a second archaeological survey was carried out at the glacier. Numerous pieces of the Iceman's equipment emerged, such as a bearskin cap, leather and hide remnants, grasses, string, pieces of skin, muscle fibers, hair and a fingernail.

Although the most important piece in the Iceman's equipment is a copper-bladed axe (tests have shown it could have chopped down a yew tree in 35 minutes) this stone disc is the most mysterious. Made of white Dolomite marble, it has a hole in the middle through which a hide strip was threaded. Nine twisted hide thongs were tied on to a loop in this strip. After 20 years, the disc's function remains unclear.

Oetzi is the world's most studied mummy. The Neolithic man is a so-called "wet mummy." As humidity is retained in individual cells, the body tissue is elastic and allows in-depth scientific investigations. With all his recovered clothing and equipment, this natural mummy, unaltered by burial rites, provides a unique view into Stone Age life in Europe.

Researchers were able to diagnose several anatomic anomalies and pathologies in the mummy: Oetzi lacked a 12th pair of ribs, had bad teeth, worn joints and hardened arteries, and suffered from whipworm infestation. He also had a remarkable diastema -- a natural gap between his two upper incisors.

Oetzi's body is covered with over 50 tattoos produced by fine incisions into which charcoal was rubbed. The cuts were probably part of a pain-relieving treatment. Indeed, the tattooed areas correspond to skin acupuncture lines. Before Oetzi, it was believed that acupuncture originated 2,000 years later in Asia.

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In 2001 new X-ray analysis revealed the presence of a flint arrowhead in the left shoulder. The arrowhead ended up just a few inches from the lung. Although vital organs were not hit, the arrow severed a major blood vessel and damaged the neurovascular fascicles of the left arm. This caused heavy bleeding and possibly paralysis of the arm. The Iceman probably bled to death within a matter of minutes. A deep wound to the hand and numerous bruises confirm that the Iceman engaged in hand-to-hand combat shortly before his death. Recently, researchers also discovered a skull fracture and major bleeding in the back, suggesting that the mummy also suffered a blow to the head. He died in the spring or early summer at about age 45.

This reconstruction by two Dutch experts, Alfons and Adrie Kennis, was produced with the latest in forensic mapping technology. It used three-dimensional images of the mummy's skull as well as infrared and tomographic images. It shows Oetzi as a brown-eyed, bearded, furrow faced man who spent many hours walking in the mountains. He was about 5 foot, 3 inches tall and weighed 110 pounds. The Iceman belonged to a European genetic group and was probably infertile.

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On Jan. 16, 1998, the Iceman and his belongings were moved from the Institute for Anatomy of Innsbruck University to a newly-built South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. The mummy now lies in a darkened room and can be viewed through a small window. At a temperature of -42F° and a relative humidity of 98 percent, Oetzi's house simulates the conditions of the glacier ice. To stop the mummy from gradually drying out, the cell walls are lined with tiles of ice.

Claims of a Tutankhamen-style curse have begun to spread about Oetzi. Indeed, seven strange deaths occurred just a couple of years after German hiker Helmut Simon and his wife Erika discovered the frozen mummy in the Oetztal Alps in 1991. The seven people who died were all involved either in the recovery of the mummy or in the scientific investigation. One of the seven was Helmut Simon, whose body was found trapped in ice in 2004, just like his famous find.