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How many treatments do I need?

As much as this answer will be found frustrating to many people, the answer is: it depends!

While acupuncture is an effective form of pain relief, it usually takes more than one treatment to provide long-term results. Depending on how much pain you’re experiencing or whether you need acupuncture for a different type of health condition, your acupuncturist might suggest coming in for several treatments.

Acupuncture is not a drug; the needles are not adding anything into the body. Instead, the insertion of the needles is meant to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (our “rest and digest” system). It is this system that helps with repair and homeostasis. If we can stimulate this system, a cascade of biophysiological reactions are started, releasing various hormones and neurotransmitters to try to bring the body back into balance. In other words, to help alleviate the condition for which you have come in for.

How effective this is, or how long it will take, depends not only on the condition for which you are seeking treatment (i.e. is it acute, chronic, made worse with your lifestyle, etc.) but also on your underlying health and individual constitution.

As the British Acupuncture Council states, “A great deal depends on factors like the time which the problem has been around, the extent of the physical change which the body is trying to achieve to restore proper function, and the person's overall energy levels. If someone has a difficult problem but excellent constitutional condition they might make faster progress than someone with a relatively minor problem in a weaker system.”

With that said, many research studies on the efficacy of acupuncture for a variety of conditions have shown that the standard course of treatment (or how many sessions you may need) tends to be from 6-12. Often participants in these studies come at minimum 2x/week for a consistent three-four weeks. After that, a reassessment is done to see whether additional treatments are needed.

It is important that while a patient is having acupuncture treatments that they come for the recommended course of treatment and during the recommended period of time. Having 6 treatments in three weeks will yield much better results then having six treatments over 2-3 months. Think about “jump-starting” your body’s repair and immune system; you do not want to activate it, let it go back to the baseline and then come back – where you have to start essentially at the beginning “level” again.

Treatment needed is also going to be dependent on whether the issue is treating an acute condition, transitional treatment or maintenance treatment. As an acute issue is successfully addressed, a patient may need to continue coming in for acupuncture treatment but the frequency each week or even each month will continue to get lower. It is the goal of acupuncture and Chinese medicine that eventually the patient’s body will return to homeostasis and they will be able to resume good health on their own.

During treatments, one should not only take into consideration “is my condition X gone or not,” but whether the main condition they are coming in for is changing in any way for the better. For example, with back pain, do not just look to see if your back pain is gone after one or two treatments but start to pay attention to whether or not the pain seems to have decreased, the pain doesn’t flare up as much or last as long, there’s more mobility, less noticeable stiffness in the morning, etc. Also take into consideration other positive changes you might notice, such as improved sleep, better mood and more consistent bowel movements. These are all signs that the acupuncture treatments are working, and you are on your way to better health and well-being.

With all of this said, it ultimately comes down to the value you place on your health. It is understandable that those without health insurance may find acupuncture treatments expensive; however, different courses of treatment can be outlined and following lifestyle advice (including diet and inclusion of Chinese herbs) may help with the condition when one cannot always come in for acupuncture. And, of course, over the long run, it is much less expensive then surgery and the effects that come after having major surgery or having an injury turn chronic.

If you are given a pack of antibiotics by your primary care doctor, you don’t just take one or two and expect to get better. You can’t even just decide to pay for only one or two. You take the whole pack until you are finished. While I mentioned earlier that acupuncture is not a drug, it works similarly in its mechanism to a course of antibiotics or other prescription medications. You need to “take” the whole course of treatments to have the most beneficial effects. Yes, you will have some positive results from only a few treatments, but to achieve the best results, it is important to follow the recommended course of treatment to the best of your ability.

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