Researchers make blunt point about bad acupuncture needles

Microscopic images of needle tips before and after use. Photo: RMIT People have been advised to ask acupuncture practitioners to check on the quality of their needles if they experience pain during acupuncture. Photo: Tanya Lake

Australian researchers have questioned the safety of commonly used acupuncture needles after they found some had blunt tips and metallic lumps on them that could be deposited into people’s skin.

Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne studied 20 randomly selected, single-use acupuncture needles from two popular brands widely used in many countries. One brand was from China and the other from Japan, however they would not disclose their names due to “commercial sensitivity”.

When they took microscopic images of them, they found “significant irregularities and inconsistencies” on the needles, including scratches, blunt ends, metallic lumps and “loosely attached pieces of material”, both of which sometimes disappeared when used on models that emulated human skin.

The Chinese brand carried most imperfections, with many needles having several faults, whereas the Japanese needles had generally smooth tips with few lumps or attachments observed.

However, the needle surfaces of both brands contained significant proportions of chromium and nickel – a mineral and metal that have reportedly caused skin reactions to acupuncture in the past. The researchers said small metallic pieces loosely attached to some of the needle surfaces were mainly composed of iron, chromium and nickel.

Writing in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine, the researchers said these metallic pieces most likely resulted from the grinding and polishing process in the manufacturing process, which should include cleaning to eliminate them.

“If the needles had been used on patients, these materials could have been deposited in human tissues, which might have caused adverse events such as dermatitis,” they wrote.

They also said rough needle tips may be causing bleeding and bruising in people and that highly malformed tips on some of the needles could be responsible for the “occasional unexplained strong pain in the needling area reported by some patients during acupuncture”.

The report said that while acupuncture was very safe, with low numbers of adverse reactions reported worldwide, the findings were of concern and should prompt reviews of quality control procedures.

“The first disposable acupuncture needles were introduced in the late 1970s. After more than three decades of developments in regulatory standards and manufacturing techniques, it would be reasonable for acupuncturists and patients to expect high quality in such a widely used clinical device,” wrote the researchers from RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Structures and Materials, Faculty of Engineering and Industrial Sciences and Traditional and Complementary Medicine Program.

An estimated 1.4 billion acupuncture needles are used each year, with China producing up to 90 per cent of them.

Dr Mike Cummings, medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Association and associate editor of the journal said the study showed the needles “look as awful as they did 10 years ago” when research highlighted similar problems.

He said although it was “highly unlikely” poor needles would affect patient health, if people experience pain during acupuncture, they should ask their practitioner to check on the quality of their needles.