What Can You Expect Afterward?
Welcome to acupuncture therapy! Here are a few thoughts to help you understand what to look for in your first few visits.
What Natural Healing Feels Like
Acupuncture is not a drug. You are not being injected with anything that will force your body to do something it wouldn’t normally do, or that conditions aren’t allowing it to do. Therefore, the results of acupuncture are not overpowering in the same way that medications can be, and there are no negative “side effects.” Even when the results are instantaneous, there is a natural or “of course” quality to the way they fade in. This is difficult to describe, but picture the ebb and flow of a tide rather than the flood of a drug response.
When the outcomes are more incremental, they may not be as noticeable in everyday life. Steady progress that feels natural is easy to ascribe to “just having a good day,” especially when that progress can often feel like “two steps forward, one step back.”
That’s why it’s very important to track specific symptom trends over time. If we plotted beneficial acupuncture outcomes on a graph, it may look something like this:
There are two other important possibilities to note.
First, as a holistic medicine, acupuncture is working on your whole body, not just your main complaint. While some treatments can be quite specific, there are others that address multiple body areas and systems. Therefore, it is possible that the first results from acupuncture therapy may be that apparently non-related symptoms start clearing up before the ones you are most concerned about.
Second, there is a well-known natural healing response called Law of Cure. This is the possible flare-up of a current or past symptom in the days after an acupuncture treatment. Usually, when this subsides, that symptom will either not manifest again or only at much lower levels than previously. The metaphor we use is that it shows up “on the way out” of the body.
As mentioned above, symptom tracking is an important aspect of acupuncture therapy. We will spend time discussing this at every appointment. It’s necessary to understand the progress of your symptoms for several reasons:
- So you understand “in the presence of what” the symptom shows up. Are there certain foods, activities, or situations that make it better or worse? For example, one patient once noted that her pain manifested daily when she was opening the front door of her house after work.
- So you will have tangible evidence that the acupuncture is working for you.
- So I can gauge how well the treatments are working, either to continue on the current plan or change to something more effective if necessary.
While you are tracking your symptoms, keep in mind the following characteristics:
Intensity (On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the symptom? Is that number getting lower or higher as time goes on?)
Frequency (Regardless of the intensity of the symptom, is it manifesting less often?)
Quality (For example, in the case of physical pain, has the sensation changed from sharp to dull? Or in the case of emotional issues, for example, has the feeling changed from anxiety to frustration?)
Range of Motion (In the case of physical pain, can you move the affected area to a greater degree? For example, can you turn your head further if you have neck pain? In the case of emotional symptoms, is your mood less “stuck”?)
Location (In the case of physical pain, has it moved from the original location?)
Stimulus (Is the same stimulation bothering you less? Or does it take more stimulation to get the same reaction?)
Activity (Is the symptom holding you back from what you’d like to accomplish less often?)
There are two ways your habits may affect your healing.
The first is obvious: if engaging in one of your habits directly leads to a symptom manifesting, it’s best to discontinue the activity until the point in your treatment when we have stabilized the symptom. For example, if your daily jog leads to knee pain . . . if leaning forward over your computer leads to neck strain . . . if engaging with a particular person leads to anxiety . . . if eating a certain food leads to digestive problems. Avoid the triggers as much as possible for the time being.
The second way is more subtle. When a symptom has manifested over a period of time, it’s common to get into certain habits of body and mind around it. If a part of your body hurts, you may unconsciously carry your body in a way that’s meant to compensate for this, but may actually lead to other pains, or to an atrophy of the affected area that is detrimental to its flexibility (which can also lead to more stiffness and pain). Moods can become habits, as well. Depression, anxiety, anger . . . these can all become reflexive reactions even when there is no appropriate trigger or chemical imbalance. One patient once reported a vivid experience of trying to be depressed, even though she was really not experiencing that symptom, simply because she was used to that reaction.
It is beneficial to periodically check in with yourself when you are experiencing your symptom. How much of it is present because of how you are habitually holding yourself, physically or mentally? What if you tried something new? Be open to new ways of going about your day. Be curious about what might happen if you only try this instead of that.
Your Body Is Wise
One of the most important outcomes of your time in acupuncture should be an understanding of how and why your symptoms come and go. If your symptom is not purely mechanical (and sometimes even if it is) – if it comes and goes – then something is “coming and going” it. Understanding what that switch is puts it in your conscious control.
We say your body is wise because it never does anything for no reason. It creates symptoms as alerts to something that is causing it to malfunction, like the warning lights on a car dashboard. Thus, your symptoms become your teachers for the best way to live.
As your treatment progresses, and you are tracking your symptoms and observing their ebb and flow, you should become less reliant upon your acupuncturist to address those warning lights.
How Often Should I Come?
Acupuncture is an incremental and cumulative therapy. For the best and fastest results, you can’t come too often. Usually, we achieve positive long-term results by several early treatments with less time in between, which then shift to decreasing frequency as you begin to feel better.
The most definitive answer to “how often” depends upon why you have come for treatment. Acute injury or trauma responds very well to two or three visits per week for a few weeks, then decreasing to less often once the worst of it has passed.
Usually a schedule of once per week for four to six weeks, then once every two weeks, then once every three, etc., is appropriate and effective for chronic conditions.
How Long Will It Take?
This depends on so many factors, including the age of the patient, the nature of the complaint, the level of self-care, and the quality of observation of what stimuli lead to more or less pain.
Sometimes results are instantaneous but the symptom returns within a few days. Sometimes it takes a few weeks until the changes are noticeable.
The goal is to keep going until the symptom remains quiet for longer and longer periods of time. We space the treatments out accordingly.
How Can I Support Acupuncture Treatment with My Lifestyle?
It has been documented that the overwhelming majority of medical interventions could be avoided with changes in the patient’s lifestyle. Sleep, nutrition, water, exercise, positive relationships, and community connections are vital for good health and daily well-being. There aren’t magic one-size-fits-all amounts of these elements that will do the trick. Sometimes the signs of deficiency will be obvious and there will be specific recommendations about diet, etc., based on your condition.
And it will always serve you well to make sure you are getting a full night’s sleep and/or to take naps when necessary, to eat nutritious whole foods and avoid processed foods and sugar, to drink more water, to get your body moving when you can, and to communicate clearly and positively with the people around you.
If You Are Paying by Health Insurance
Many health plans do cover acupuncture, and in that case your payments will be subject to the provider’s usual copays and deductibles. In addition to any billing done at the time of service, you will receive additional Explanations of Benefits (EOBs) from your insurance company. These are often indecipherable.
Note that your treatment is covered by a few different procedure codes. This refers to how many needle “insertions” – or patterns of needles for specific results – you’ve received in one appointment, as well as the examinations we do by tracking symptoms, feeling pulses, observing your tongue, palpating problem areas, etc. This billing is rather standard on our end but may show up differently from one EOB to the next, and from one insurance company to the next, so please feel free to ask if you don’t understand something.
Lastly, please be aware that, because insurance pays different amounts for different procedures, which occur in different combinations depending upon the situation, it’s often very difficult to know exactly how they will reimburse for a given appointment. If your copay is a percentage of the allowed amount (as opposed to a fixed fee per visit), you may get slightly under- or overcharged at the time of your visit. If you’ve been undercharged, you may receive a bill at your home from our billing service. If you’ve been overcharged, we will issue you a check or credit for the difference. This rarely amounts to much.