Why Be an Acu Safety Nerd?

Published in on Dec 15, 2020

The topic of acupuncture safety used to scare me. For this, I blame my acupuncture school's approach (it was way back in the early 1990s). On the one hand, I learned that the practice of acupuncture was basically safe, so safe you shouldn’t even have to think about it. On the other hand, though, it was possible to make mistakes, and if you did it was possible to hurt people, which is pretty much the worst thing imaginable if you’re a health care provider. A lot of an acupuncturist’s job is being present for people who are already stressed out and in pain, and so the last thing you want is to make things any worse. What I got from my acupuncture training was a list of DON’Ts, with a side order of “if you screw this up there’s something wrong with you”.

And in the course of my acupuncture career, I heard some disheartening stories. The acupuncturist who almost left her career after she nicked a nerve (more about nicked nerves later) and the patient reacted angrily -- this was a long time ago, when acupuncture was such a marginal occupation that you couldn’t even buy malpractice insurance. The acupuncturist who DID leave her career after she nicked a nerve and the patient reacted angrily --this was much later, when there was social media and things could get really ugly. It seemed like there was a lot that the list of safety DON’Ts didn’t cover, and a whole lot of room to have better conversations.

Before I was an acupuncture safety nerd, I was a trauma nerd, and becoming a trauma nerd is one of the best things that happened to me -- because before I was a trauma nerd, I was just a person with a gnarly trauma history that interfered with my life. Nerding out about the psychobiology of trauma lifted a heavy weight I hadn’t even realized I was carrying. It gave me the gift of perspective; it opened up a space in which I could make different decisions, based on better information, and as a result, manage my mental health much more effectively.

Some aspects of trauma theory changed the way I looked at everything, including acupuncture safety. And right on cue, because around the same time, I started an acupuncture school and so we had to teach acupuncture safety, and I sure didn’t want to teach it the way it had been taught to me.

This blog is based on the conviction that there’s a better way to talk about acupuncture safety. And also, that acupuncture safety is an endlessly fascinating topic, because of all the other things it connects to. Being interested is better than just being scared. Let the nerdery begin.