Stabbing kids with needles: malpractice, or just a very bad idea?

Yesterday's Washington Post featured a terribly researched article titled "Kids and needles is sometimes a good match: Acupuncture can help with pain."

Imagine: a one-year-old boy arrives at an emergency room in New York at 3 a.m. with an asthma attack.  He is slow to respond to a nebulizer treatment.  Enter Dr. Stephen Cowan, who decides to use acupuncture.  That's right, he stabs a one-year-old baby with multiple needles to treat asthma.  According to Dr. Cowan, the boy "reacted calmly" and improved.  The article doesn't provide any more details.

This is appalling.  Sticking needles into a baby has never been shown to have any effectiveness at treating asthma, and we do have treatments that work.  In all likelihood, the nebulizer did work, in the case that Dr. Cowan related to the reporter, but Dr. Cowan mistakenly credits his acupuncture treatment.

Stephen Cowan is a aggressively self-promoting doctor, who claims on his website that he can treat both autism and ADHD with acupuncture and other forms of Chinese Medicine.  He also describes how he convinces children to let him stick needles into them.  He states his belief in mystical "vital energy" or qi, one of the wacky pseudoscientific notions at the core of acupuncture beliefs.  His claims are little more than a modern, mystical version of the claims made by 19th-century snake oil salesman.

The Washington Post story also revealed that Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. recently treated a 17-year-old girl with pancreatitis by stabbing needles into her stomach and other places.  There is no evidence that this works, but the girl's doctor believes it does.  The girl reportedly wasn't harmed, fortunately.

The doctor at Children's Hospital, Jennifer Anderson, is an anesthesiologist who is also an acupuncturist.  In the story, she said "I often treat patients with chronic issues" with acupuncture.  This is frightening: a doctor at a major medical center is telling children, most of whom are too young to even think of questioning the wisdom of a doctor, that sticking them with needles will help their pain.  Dr. Anderson admitted that "she often does two to three treatments a week at first on a child."  So she admits to stabbing many sharp needles into children and telling them that the treatments will help their pain.  She argues that the children report that this is "helpful."

This is perilously close to child abuse.  Children want to please adults, and if an adult tells them something is good for them, especially if an authority figure tells them, they are extremely unlikely to disagree. They'll just swallow the medicine, or endure the treatment, and then tell the adult what she wants to hear.  Dr. Anderson seems unaware of this.  And Children's National Medical Center, a generally outstanding hospital, should be seriously concerned that one of its anesthesiologists is practicing quack medicine on children, who are perhaps the most vulnerable of all patients.

Let's be clear: acupuncture is based on nonsense.  Scientists have gone to great pains to study it, and the conclusion can be stated simply: acupuncture does not work.  (And yes, I know about the latest meta-analysis claiming that acupuncture works.  Dr. Steven Novella has already explained why that analysis is "completely useless.")  If acupuncture were a drug being tested by a pharmaceutical company, it would have been abandoned long ago.  Its proponents are no better than any big pharma company that pushes a drug that it knows to be ineffective.

Acupuncture is worse than ineffective: because it's an invasive procedure, there is a small but real risk of harm.  As I wrote last year in The Atlantic, acupuncturist sometimes cause infections, which can lead to rare but serious complications.  Acupuncturists protest (often) that they use sterile needles, but this very protest reveals their ignorance: most infections are caused by bacteria already present on the skin, which enter through the puncture wound.

Parents: don't let an acupuncturist stick needles into your kids.  Read the science first, and avoid - no, run screaming from - any practitioner who claims that he can adjust the "qi" in your child.


  1. Parents: don't let an acupuncturist stick needles into your kids. Can we exant it to: Parenst, be very careful with anybody wanting to stick needles into your kids, especially vaccines who are known to contain heavy toxins and may cause various problems?

  2. Wow. I'm very impressed by the complete lack of intelligence you have regarding Chinese Medicine.

  3. "Most infections are caused by bacteria already present on the skin, which enter through the puncture wound." Yes, why else would acupuncturists clean the point of puncture with alcohol first? At the same time, how come countless diabetics are never told by their family MD that they should also clean their skin before jabbing their finger every single day with a (much bigger) needle to test their blood sugar?
    The main thing, really, is that there are about 12 deaths a year from acupuncture WORLDWIDE, vaguely attributed to acupuncture itself, vs about 195,000 deaths IN-HOSPITAL from medical errors per year IN THE US, and close to 1 MILLION preventable deaths from medical errors a year. Are we telling people that medicine is dangerous?
    Yes, the research on acupuncture is severely lacking. But any half-decent scientist knows that a handful of poor studies is not the end of the story. It's one thing to prove that this pill of xyz 500mg provides this much more reduction in blood pressure than a sugar pill. But it's much harder to provide a control for something like acupuncture than it is for something like a pill or a cream. Not to mention that the money to orchestrate the large studies just isn't there, because acupuncturists tend to be driven by a desire to help, not a desire for big corporate profits.

    1. Anon: your arguments are, essentially, non sequiturs. Sure, there are medical errors that cause injury and death. Those are bad and we should eliminate them. But medicine provides a real benefit, much of the time. Acupuncture does not - and thus any risk is unacceptable. Also, your claim of "12 deaths a year" has no evidence to back it up, nor can we find such evidence, because acupuncture is almost entirely unregulated and un-monitored. But the whole, tired argument that "medicine causes harm, therefore try X" where X is quackery, is simply bad logic.

  4. Once the death rate from doctors and hospitals falls from 700,000 to say 600,000 a year then we should talk about using western trained doctors and hospitals again, otherwise anyone else is less of a risk.


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