One, Two, Three, Four… How Many Sessions More?
You’re ready to give acupuncture a try and want to find out a little more about what’s involved. One of the most frequent questions first-timers ask is how many treatments it will take to get better.
This is a good question. It’s a fair question, and you deserve an answer. However, because everyone heals at their own pace, I can’t give you a definite answer.
When a patient wants to know how long it will take for something to heal, there are a couple of factors I take into account. Among them:
-How long you’ve had the condition. If you’ve had low back pain for twenty years, it will most likely take longer than the person who began having similar symptoms last month.
-The nature of your complaint or illness. Many conditions can be quickly resolved with acupuncture and Traditional Chinese medicine (TMC) , including stress, anxiety, digestive issues, PMS, and many types acute pain. On the other hand, deep-seated chronic illnesses, such as autoimmune conditions may take longer.
-Your general health. I have seen many young and healthy patients surprise me with how quickly they heal. However, older patients, those in really poor health, and those on numerous medications tend to need more time and treatments.
-Your commitment to getting better. What you do at home in between treatments can make a huge difference in how quickly you heal. If you implement your practitioner’s suggestions regarding dietary therapy, heating or cooling an injury, resting, stretches, herbal medicine, and lifestyle changes, you can speed up your recovery.
– How often your treatments are spaced out. Initially, you will always get better, faster results by getting frequent treatments. Generally, I recommend starting at 2 treatments weekly, as this is the frequency shown effective in controlled studies of acupuncture. Acupuncture is cumulative with each treatment building on the previous one. With treatment starting close together, you are less likely to relapse after one or two days.
That said, you may see some results after a couple of treatments, sometimes not even related to your main complaint. You may be sleeping better or feel more relaxed, which is the beginning of the healing process. Your symptoms are worse and it’s hard to heal when you’re stressed out or tired.
Sometimes the pain or problem isn’t better after a treatment, but it’s different, and I consider that a good thing, too. When you have a long-standing pain or symptom, your body becomes used to it. That pain becomes your “new normal”, and it becomes a physiological habit. If, after an acupuncture treatment, that symptom has changed, it tells me that we’re beginning to alter that habit and the healing process is under way.
So what do I tell prospective patients when they ask me how many treatments they’ll need? My best answer is that acupuncture is a therapy and while some people may heal very quickly–in just a few sessions–others will take longer. I advise them to give acupuncture a fair try, say five or six treatments, to see how they’re improving. Now, I’m NOT saying POOF, at the magic number of 5 or 6, they won’t need any more treatments, just that at that point, I will have a better idea of how many treatments they will ultimately need to heal completely.
One key to the success in acupuncture as an effective treatment for many conditions, such as chronic pain or chronic depression, is receiving an adequate amount of treatment. In general, one acupuncture session isn’t enough to achieve enduring results; to ensure long-lasting effects, you need a larger “dose.”
For example if my blood pressure is a tad high. I go to my primary care provider and she would likely prescribe medication that I would need to take daily to control it. If I don’t take it regularly or in the right dose, I won’t see my blood pressure drop. Just like the amount and frequency of medication are important to success, so are the dose and frequency of acupuncture and the many variables, including the condition, length, and severity, that determines how much and how often.
When it comes to chronic pain, researchers found one component of acupuncture treatment that was associated with better outcomes: people who attended more sessions had more significant pain reduction, meaning the number of visits appears to positively influence outcomes. This makes sense to those of us practicing acupuncture and TCM in the real world — and it’s true even for non-pain-related cases.
In randomized comparative effectiveness trials (studies that compare different types of treatments), researchers looked at acupuncture for chronic depression and chronic neck pain. The addition of acupuncture (12 weekly sessions) to usual care for chronic depression was as least as good as the addition of cognitive behavioral therapy and superior to usual care alone. For chronic neck pain, the addition of acupuncture (12 sessions) to usual care was at least as good as 20 sessions of Alexander Technique, and superior to usual care alone.
The evidence clearly points to the need for an adequate acupuncture dosage. It’s a vital component to lasting treatment effect, and the number of treatments needed is likely far more than just two or three visits. Keep your eye on the goal and, so long as you are making continuous though gradual improvements, you will eventually discover how many acupuncture treatments you need to get the results you want.