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Understanding the latest incident of infection by acupuncture treatment

Auricular or ear acupuncture, is often performed with acupressure seeds that are adhered to the ear with tape.
Auricular or ear acupuncture, is often performed with acupressure seeds that are adhered to the ear with tape.

In a recent interview, the actress Zoe Saldana talked about getting an infection from an acupuncture treatment. There has always been a lot of concern about infections from acupuncture treatments. The actual incidence of infection is actually very low.

The treatment described by the actress is not the most common style of acupuncture. There are many styles and techniques of acupuncture treatment. Most acupuncture is done in a medical office, with the needles retained in the skin for a specific period of time. There is a less popular style where tiny needles ( often called “tacks”) are imbedded into the skin for extended periods of time. These needles are sometimes left in for days at a time. The imbedded needle is covered with the piece of tape to keep the sight clean. If the tape is disturbed, bacteria can get into the site and produce an infection.

This type of imbedded needle is often used on point locations in the outer ear. An infection here is different than a classic ear infection which affects the ear canal and ear drum. Because the patient wears the needles for an extended period of time, in situations where the cleanliness of the ear may be compromised, many acupuncturists avoid this type of treatment. Some acupuncturists use small seeds or beads taped to the ear to provide a gentle non-invasive stimulus or acupressure to the acupuncture points.

It appears from the comments of the actress that she likely contaminated the acupuncture sites herself by constantly touching the ears throughout her day. Patients should be aware of this possible situation. If a patient is likely to contaminate a needle site, then it is probably best that they stick to acupuncture treatments in the controlled environment of an acupuncturists office, or opt for the acupressure pellets that carry far less risk. In some places these types of acupuncture treatments are carried out by practitioners who do not meet national board certification standards. Always check the certification of your practitioner.