Wondering how to get the most out of treatment? Begin with cultivating a little patience.
One of my professors in acupuncture school was fond of telling us that, as acupuncturists, we’d have about two weeks to make patients feel better. He reasoned that most people will discontinue treatment if they don’t see any improvement in their condition in that time frame. We all laughed back then, but he was serious and, as it turns out, he was right.
For the most part, this isn’t an issue. Acupuncture is so effective that most people feel a difference within the first four visits (usually over two weeks). However, lots of people come to acupuncture with very chronic, persistent and stubborn conditions. Pain, insomnia, anxiety, depression and fatigue can take years to manifest at an intensity that forces someone to seek treatment. We’re all so busy that we just put up with these discomforts until they start interfering with our daily lives, and then, because we are a nation of people who believes bigger and faster must be better, we look for something that will quickly provide significant relief. Sometimes that happens with acupuncture, but it’s impossible to predict who will be lucky enough to experience an instant resolution of a nagging health problem. Usually, improvements are noticed gradually over several weeks, hopefully quickly enough for patients to continue treatment and see significant, lasting benefits to their health.
When I ask a patient with a chronic condition to commit to six acupuncture visits, it’s not because I’m trying to take her money. Instead, I am trying to give her body adequate time to respond to treatment and show improvement. Acupuncture, like all natural medicine, works more slowly than drugs because it encourages the body to heal and regulate itself–a process that takes time but provides higher-quality, longer-lasting results. For example, in a patient with hypothyroidism, we use acupuncture and Chinese herbs to encourage proper functioning of the thyroid gland. After a number of months, we hope that the thyroid gland will be well enough to function normally without treatment. In the same case, a Western medical professional might prescribe drugs that essentially take over the function of the thyroid gland. Because the thyroid gland isn’t expected to recover, and indeed gets the message that it is no longer needed, the patient becomes dependent on that drug for life.
When patients drop out after one, two or three acupuncture visits because “it’s not helping”, I can’t help but feel discouraged. Who knows what would have happened if he’d had more patience? Who knows how much better he would have felt in just six or twelve weeks?
I do understand that money can be an issue, as most people don’t have insurance that will cover acupuncture. An elderly patient tonce asked, “why should I pay for this when I can see my doctor for free?” By “free” I assume she meant that Medicare only requires her to pay a small co-payment for doctor visits. I guess for her it didn’t matter what kind of medicine brought relief, just as long as it fit her budget. For others, especially those who have already taken the prescribed medications and pursued other therapies without benefit, maybe it is worth paying for treatment that treats them as whole people and focuses less on symptom control and more on improving vitality and wellness.
Of course, I can’t guarantee that sticking with treatment will provide the desired results. I’m not psychic and I’m not a magician. I am, however, a skilled practitioner with many years of experience and I can tell you honestly that most people (at least 75%) who try acupuncture get some benefit out of it. Most report a 50% or better improvement in their symptoms after six to twelve visits, all without dangerous side effects or other risks to health. This is a pretty good track record, if I do say so myself.
Sometimes it pays to make a quick evaluation and move on before wasting too much time and money: trying on a bathing suit before buying it and wearing it to the beach, tasting that new ice cream flavor before buying a large cone or test-driving that car to make sure it feels good to you. But with a therapy like acupuncture, it actually pays to adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude, at least for those first six visits.
Do you have a question about acupuncture or Chinese Medicine? Post it here as a comment and we’ll answer it in our next blog post.