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July 21, 2021

How often do I need to get acupuncture treatments? (and other common curiosities about the course of treatment)

The goal of any acupuncturist is to get you out of their clinic– and hopefully shouting from the rooftops about how your pain went away or that you haven’t slept this well since you were a teenager or one of the other 10,000 benefits of treatment. In order to get you out of our clinic and back into your life (and sending all your friends and family our way), we’ll ask you to commit to a consistent course of treatment for a specific length of time, and then we’ll re-evaluate along the way. You can expect a course of treatment to involve getting acupuncture once or twice a week, some lifestyle or movement coaching, and, when appropriate, a custom herbal prescription.

Consistency is Key

Looking down a person's feet with a gym weight on the floor

When people say things like “I tried acupuncture once and it didn’t work,” some acupuncturists use the comparison of going to the gym: you don’t go to the gym once and expect to overhaul your physical fitness. You show up and challenge your body regularly & consistently, and that’s what changes your muscle structure, tone, and endurance. The blessing about this comparison is that you can usually get a nap and some bodywork out of your regular trip to the acupuncturist– we don’t recommend trying that at the gym 🙂

To get started, acupuncturists tend to recommend that patients come in once or even twice a week if a patient is able. A good rule of thumb is: if acupuncture is going to be able to “move the needle” on your experience of a condition, you should feel some effects within the first 6 treatments. The effects will be cumulative and should start to last longer and longer between treatments. In terms of how long to expect to be in treatment, that can really vary. Keep in mind, chronic conditions can take longer than acute conditions to unwind. Some body processes, like the production of hormones or basic metabolic rate change on the order of months, while some things, like inflammation or digestive tract discomforts can change more swiftly.

Be a Scientist

The more curious you are about your own symptoms and the more you notice, the better your treatments can get. For example, if you’re being treated for pain, and for 3 weeks you notice that you’re free from pain for 4 days after treatment but then it starts to creep back in– book an extra session on Day 4 and see what a difference it makes. That momentum may be the key to unlock longer periods of being pain-free.

Often our most noisy symptoms are part of a bigger picture and story about what’s going on with our bodies, minds, and spirits– can we start to notice the symptoms before the symptoms? Acupuncture treatments can be a gateway to more mindful presence, and that practice of being with ourselves, inside our bodies, can illuminate some ways where we can intervene in our own self-sabotaging behaviors. Noticing and releasing stress in your neck can save you from jaw pain. Noticing discomfort in your hips because you’ve been sitting for too long can save you from sciatic pain. Noticing that you’re tired and getting more sleep might even lower blood pressure. Start to think of yourself as your own personal researcher and then help us look at the data to build the best possible treatment for you.

The Non-Acupuncture Stuff

You may have noticed that your acupuncturist will suggest tweaks to your lifestyle– things like going to bed earlier, cutting back on screen time, swapping one food item for another in your diet. The more you’re able to really engage with these practices and suggestions, the more results you should see from your treatment. Our Japanese Medicine instructor Dr.Barbara Martello, DACM, LAc. always reminds patients: your acupuncturist is with you 1 hour once a week if they’re lucky– you’re with yourself the other 167 hours a week. What you do with yourself and your body during those 167 hours will impact whether each acupuncture session can build on the last or if we’re on the hamster wheel with you.

In addition to lifestyle, ergonomic, and dietary advice, acupuncturists have also spent time learning the meditative and healing movements of Qi Gong. You may be more familiar with the term “Tai Chi”- – while their forms can look similar, “Tai Chi” is more of a martial arts form, while Qi Gong has a wellness focus and can be much more simple. Your acupuncturist may recommend that you engage with this movement-based branch of East Asian Medicine to support the work you are doing in the treatment room. Some acupuncturists share videos for patients to follow along with complex sequences, or they may offer one or two simple movements right in the treatment room.

Herbal Medicines

Herbal medicine and supplements can have a huge impact on the course of treatment; taking herbs morning & night is like getting two acupuncture treatments a day! So what are your options for taking herbal medicines and what’s the therapeutic difference between decocting the raw herbs, tossing the granule-versions into hot water, and popping a handful of herbal pills or tablets?

Raw:

  • Pros:
    • Said to be the most effective way to extract all the benefits out of herbal medicines.
    • Decocting the herbs is like a treatment of its own: the herbs waft through your kitchen and start to have effects before you’ve even taken the first sip.
    • Most flavorful: the taste and flavor profiles of the delicious herbs like honey-fried licorice and wild mint really come through.
  • Cons:
    • Inconvenient: Every few days you have to decoct a new batch.
    • Flavorful: while there are some truly delicious herbs in our pharmacopeia, not all of the herbs are so pleasant and not everyone enjoys the same flavors.*

Granule Extracts:

  • Pros:
    • Convenience: just add the correct number of scoops to some hot water and your dose is ready.
    • The flavor is in your hands: if you enjoy the flavor, you can add more water and sip it like tea. If you’re less interested in the flavors but appreciate the medicine inside, you can put the granules in a smaller amount of water and drink it quickly.
  • Cons:
    • Somewhat less potency than raw decoctions.

Pills or Tablets:

  • Pros:
    • The most convenient format of prescriptions. No preparation needed, just pop them and go.
    • Least flavorful. For less palatable prescriptions, tea pills can be a helpful way to ensure that you still take your prescription.
  • Cons:
    • The least potent form. Requires a high dosage to get therapeutic effect.
    • The least customizable: practitioners cannot swap out or add in herbs to better suit your case or presentation.

*Side note on Taste & Flavor:

Some say that working with tastes and flavors that don’t appeal to you is deeply medicinal, and some patients notice that over time when working with a healing formula that is correcting their imbalances, they come to enjoy the taste much more as they heal from the imbalances that the formula is addressing.

Getting to “Maintenance Mode”

If we’ve done our job well, our books will be full of your friends and family who you’ve been bragging to about the miracle of East Asian Medicine, and you’ll be coming back in on a “maintenance” schedule. Some folks like to do these tune ups once a month or once a season, others give us a call when they’re about to travel and want a little immune system boost, and some drop in to treat themselves to a birthday Tui Na massage & acu-nap.

About the Author

White woman with wide brim straw hat on holds a white and brown dog and smiles in front of snowy mount and frozen lake scene on a sunny dayAlly Magill is a recent AIMC graduate with a background in birthwork as a labor and postpartum doula, outdoor education, and the management of thriving community acupuncture clinics. Her mission in her practice and life is to co-create a world where individuals and families are living into their own epic radiance and embodied wellness. She studied Five Element Acupuncture at the Maryland University of Integrative Health before joining AIMC for the herbal & integrative medicine portion of her Master’s degree. She has had the opportunity to study the teachings of Daoist master Jeffrey Yuen through his students & incorporates Classical Chinese Medicine into her practice.

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