Prescription pain medication “numbs” you out. Acupuncture works differently. Acupuncture is more like a crockpot than a microwave - it works slowly through and through rather than heating you up quick and leaving hot spots in the middle. Sometimes people are unsure if acupuncture is working or not. Frequently when a person has a chronic pain condition they shut off the connection to their body as a survival mechanism so it can be hard to know! Here’s how to tell the acupuncture is working.
Are you taking less pain medication?
This is a big one. If you are able to drop a dose, wait longer between doses or forget to take it those are all good signs! You may still be feeling pain however needing less or a less strong medication is a sign your body is healing.
Do you notice a change in the location, frequency and/or intensity of the pain?
Did the area of the pain get smaller? If your whole back hurt and now its just your upper back that is a sign you are getting better. Do you get headaches twice a week instead of daily? That is a very good sign. Has the overall pain level decreased? Again, good news!
Do you feel relief right after the treatment but then it “wears off”?
This is a good sign. Keep coming back! As you get more acupuncture your body will become more stable and the relief will last longer and longer. This is why we recommend coming more often in the beginning of treatment - an ideal minimum is twice a week for moderate to severe conditions. Your body is in a habit right now and it’s going to take some time for it to learn how to do something new. Stick with it, it’s working!
Are you able to do more?
Maybe you’re able to forget about your pain sometimes. Maybe simple things like grocery shopping or going down the stairs is easier. Can you walk a little farther before having to sit down? Is getting dressed easier? Can you get down on the floor and play with your grandkids and be able to get back up again? Is your pain not interfering with your life as much? Acupuncture is working. Keep going!
Do you feel better overall?
Are you smiling a little bit more? Feel a little more hopeful? Is your anxiety or brain fog better? Living with chronic pain can be exhausting and depressing - sometimes an improved mood is the first sign acupuncture is working. So if you’re feeling a little less grumpy - keep coming back!
Acupuncture is a great tool to manage chronic pain because it not only helps to reduce pain, it also helps with energy level, mood, sleep and stress which can worsen chronic pain conditions. It also has no side effects and feels pretty amazing! A person’s tolerance to pain decreases when they aren’t getting enough sleep and are stressed out for example. Life seems more overwhelming and we have less ability to manage it when we aren’t feeling well. Our bodymindspirit is interconnected, what affects one area of us, affects all.
You walk into the treatment room and see everyone else either asleep with their mouths open or peaceful and still with their eyes closed, maybe listening to their own music on their headphones. They look so relaxed! You can barely sit still in the chair for 30 minutes and definitely DO NOT feel like sleeping. Hell, you can barely sleep at night or sit still to watch tv. There is laundry to be folded, dishes to be washed, homework to be done, emails to be answered, groceries to be shopped for, etc etc etc etc. It doesn't end. Who has time to relax? That's for lazy people anyway. Hey you, I totally get it because this is kind of me.
Sometimes people have a hard time relaxing while they get acupuncture treatment. First of all, it's OK. I promise. The acupuncture is still working. Whether you fall asleep or not is zero indication as to efficacy of the treatment. You are not failing at acupuncture. You do not suck at acupuncture. You are not the 1 special person it's not working for while it works for everyone else. Your body is just stuck in a habit of go-go-go and its going to take a minute for your body to do something different. And that is OK.
Sometimes sitting still is scary. That's OK too. You are not alone. You are safe here. And we have tissues if you need them.
Here is my advice. Put your phone away. Put the book or magazine away. These things just re-stimulate your brain and our goal is to shut your brain off. Don't keep turning it back on. Let your mind wander. Some people find it helpful to focus on their breathing. You can do that but you don't have to. You can't fail at this. The success is in taking the time for yourself to coax your bodymindspirit to do something its not used to. Changing a habit is hard. It takes many intentional acts before momentum kicks in and the cycle starts to build on itself and take over and become a routine to maintain. This is why it takes "30 days to form a habit". Us human beings are highly adaptable but it takes a little time for the adaptation to happen and this is a good thing because if it didn't we would be all over the place.
Give it time. Have patience with yourself. I talk to my kids all the time about working their "patience muscle" when they want me to do the thing RIGHT NOW, usually when I'm driving, wiping the other child's butt or I'm in the shower. Are we wired this way or is it a result of our society of instant gratification? I don't know but the point is that no one wants to wait. Our bodies and our lives don't have any light switches though. You can't turn on the switch to lose 50lbs, get pregnant, go to sleep, meet your soulmate, do 25 pull ups or memorize a piano concerto. Be easy with yourself and your body. You are not a failure, you're a work in progress. What counts is regular practice, regular treatment, being pointed in the general direction of where you want to go and making tiny steps to get there or at least closer. You might even have some fun and a few surprises along the way.
Progress might be small, regular and incremental or there might be nothing for a while and then suddenly everything at once. Everyone is different. Context is important too. If you are going through major life stuff it might be unrealistic to expect to be completely zen right in the middle of it all- especially in the beginning. But being able to take a couple of deep breaths, peace out in a chair for 30 minutes with needles once or twice a week and finding the time to take a quick walk can make all the difference. This is the balm to keep you going, to get you through with as few scrapes as possible. You can do it, I have faith in you. Just keep at it. It works if you work it, so work it, you're worth it. <3
Meaghan Massella, M.Ac, L.Ac, Dipl. Ac (NCCAOM) is an acupuncturist, business owner and mother of 2.