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The Vexed Question of Adverse Effects

A patient told me a story about her GP. She had told him she was worried that one of the drugs she was taking (a statin) was causing the muscle pain she was suffering from. Her GP told her she was reading too many articles in the Daily Mail. My Dad gets the Daily Mail, so I know what the GP means.


Nevertheless, adverse effects (also called side effects) are a big problem with a lot of drugs, not least because, as in this case, it is often hard to be at all sure that a particular problem is an adverse effect of a drug, or due to some other cause; or maybe it is partly due to the drug, and partly something else. Or in the case of someone taking a lot of different medications, maybe it is partly one drug, partly another, partly the way the drugs interact….


One of the reasons I like doing acupuncture is that it has very few adverse effects. If you are unlucky (or are taking anticoagulant medication) you might get a little bruise where one of the needles was, or you might feel a bit dozy after the treatment, but apart from that, adverse effects are very rare. (Click here for the evidence).


It seems to me a form of treatment that has few if any adverse effects is rather preferable to one that might cause a lot of secondary issues. For instance, a recent study1 compared the use of acupuncture in the treatment of migraine with the drug topiramate, an anticonvulsant medication often used to treat recurrent migraine. In this study not only did the acupuncture treatment give significantly more benefits in terms of reducing the number and severity of migraine attacks than topiramate, but also, whereas 66% of the patients taking the drug reported adverse effects of their treatment, only 6% of those having acupuncture reported such events.


The reason for this big difference is that the aim of traditional acupuncture treatment for migraine is to restore harmony and balance to the patient’s systems, which are clearly out of kilter if they are suffering migraines. Most drug treatments do not do this, but aim to suppress the particular symptom in question, in this case migraine. From the point of view of traditional acupuncture, just trying to get rid of a single symptom without addressing the underlying disharmony which it is a manifestation of is likely to produce adverse effects, since you are not really solving the problem so much as shunting it to some other place.


1. Acupuncture versus topiramate in chronic migraine prophylaxis: a randomized clinical trial. Cephalalgia. 2011 Nov;31(15):1510-21).


Written by Vimalaprabha

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