A common statement made by patients in my clinic is “I believe in acupuncture.” This is usually a dual comment that they have seen results, but also more abstractly that they believe in the idea of acupuncture almost as a philosophy of healing. Some of these patients feel that their belief in the medicine is key to the benefits they receive. I love hearing this, because it’s a great start.
On the other hand, I have also heard new patients say, “I don’t believe in acupuncture (no offense).” This is usually said before they have tried it, or before they have had enough treatment to see measurable results. Typically they are warning me that they don’t expect it to work, and they assume that one must believe in acupuncture in order to get any benefit. This is not a great setup for successful treatment, but not for the reasons they may think.
No Belief Required
Do you have to believe in acupuncture for it to work? The idea that acupuncture requires belief implies that its major mechanism is the placebo effect.
Acupuncture was first developed for use on horses. Horses obviously do not have belief in acupuncture. Yet the technique must have worked well because now, thousands of years later, acupuncture is still actively used in China and around the world. In fact, acupuncture is heavily incorporated into Chinese hospitals and is a vital aspect of their health care system.
While acupuncture in the United States tends to fall into a grouping with the mystical healing arts, in China it’s a very pragmatic and low-cost solution for very mundane problems. So technically, belief is not required.
An understanding of the mechanisms of acupuncture is also not required. Some world-renowned acupuncturists will say frankly that they still don’t understand exactly what the points are or why acupuncture works, yet they successfully treat hundreds of patients weekly.
I suppose that acupuncture, along with many other traditional healing methods, simply cannot be explained by current scientific thought. But this is not because they are mysterious or religious in nature. It’s just because scientists have not been particularly interested in exploring acupuncture points or the meridian systems.
In China, though, and even in the U.S., mainstream science is starting to get curious and in most cases the results confirm traditional teachings. If scientific evidence doesn’t absolutely confirm the tradition, one must consider that acupuncture is hard to test empirically. It is both an art and a science.
It is very possible to pass on a tradition without knowing why it works or even where the ideas and techniques came from. Nobody knows by scientific proof how acupuncture started, why the points are placed where they are, or what qi really is. That doesn’t mean it is ineffective, or that it is only activated by belief.
The Role of Disbelief
There is a trick to this question of belief, though: if one actively does not believe in acupuncture, they will tend to negate or overlook the benefits they have received.
People who are new to acupuncture may not understand what types of changes they might see, and they won’t know what to look for. A disbeliever will be very unlikely to recognize subtle changes.
I have found that some patients have a hard time measuring their own progress. Even though their pain level may have gone down, they might not be able to quantify the change very accurately. People commonly even forget about a complaint once it has stopped, because it’s not there to remind them anymore.
When the patient is receiving mental or emotional benefits, changes may be even more difficult for the patient to recognize. You are always at the center of your own perception. So when you, the observer, adjust your perspective slightly or clean a distorting layer from your view on the world, you may not notice the change because still, you are at the center.
Think of how the world looks when you have your sunglasses on. You adjust to what you are seeing and take it as fact. You are not always thinking about how much darker everything is while you are wearing sunglasses. It’s only when you take them off that you truly realize you were seeing differently.
Other people who know you well can often tell more easily how much you have changed. Because they are on the outside, they can see the difference more clearly. Skeptics may miss the subtlety of the changes brought on by acupuncture because they are not willing to recognize them or don’t take them seriously enough.
Alternately, a disbeliever may quit treatment too soon. I usually tell people they need at least five treatments to see full benefit. Sometimes the beginning treatments provide foundational improvements, but the effects do not fully manifest until the third or fourth treatment. This time will be even longer if the patient continues to do whatever activity caused the symptoms in the first place. A skeptic may conclude that acupuncture does not work.
Keeping an Open Mind
I fully understand that acupuncture seems mysterious and mystical. I used to work at the front desk of an acupuncture clinic, and even then, I had absolutely no idea what the people in the back were doing. I even received treatments from them and just accepted that they must be doing something. These are all natural responses to something unfamiliar. After all, it took me three years of hard work, study and practice, to even begin to understand acupuncture and Chinese medicine. In reality, it is a lifelong process of active learning.
So what, then, is the best attitude when seeking acupuncture? Quite simply, all you need to have is an open mind and a willingness to commit to the process. This means that you must put your own lack of understanding to the side. Plus, you must commit to getting at least five treatments. For this reason, you must first of all choose a practitioner who you feel you can trust as a caretaker of your health. And then, assess the efficacy of the treatment only after the fifth treatment.
By that time, your practitioner will also be assessing the success of the treatments and may refer you out to a different kind of doctor if you have seen little or no improvement.
When acupuncture does not work at all, it is for one of only a handful of reasons—the damage is too severe or acute, the patient is continuing the aggravating activity, or the patient has not disclosed all information (such as life stressors or habits).