As I see more patients I notice an interesting set of perceptions & attitudes around acupuncture. Even after reading basic information on acupuncture, for most people there still isn’t a clear understanding of what acupuncture is, what it isn’t and how it works. So, many come to acupuncture with some erroneous ideas.

Unfortunately, these ideas often hinder their ability to take full advantage of what acupuncture and Oriental medicine has to offer. My intention in this article is to help people adopt an attitude toward this medicine that serves them best.

The “Fix Me” Perception:
The first common attitude is the “fix me” attitude, where a patient presents with an ailment they would like fixed. As though they were a 1982 Honda Accord, and I was their mechanic.  This attitude assumes that once the problem is “fixed,” acupuncture is no longer beneficial. This attitude is to be expected; after all, in this culture, this is how we were taught that bodies and medicine work.

In some instances, such as acute injury, this approach is appropriate. You sprained your ankle and want me to help alleviate the pain and speed the healing time…sure, no problem.

You are not a machine:
The problem with the “fix me” attitude is in regard to long-term illness or pain. First of all, the paradigm under which Oriental medicine operates fundamentally says that you are not a 1982 Honda Accord; you are not a machine at all. You are a living complex of dynamic interrelated systems, energies, nutrients, functions, thoughts, ideas, attitudes, feelings, fears, experiences, desires and behaviors that ALL have an impact on EVERY part of you. Your body, mind and spirit are inseparable; you cannot affect one without affecting the others.

So, what you do in your life, how you feed and care for yourself, who you surround yourself with, and the beliefs that you hold about yourself, your body, your illness and the world around you all have as much of an impact on your long-term health as I can have with my acupuncture needles, massage and herbs.

No, I cannot “fix” you; but you can heal, if given the right circumstances.  This is where I come in…I can facilitate a shift into a state that is more balanced and conducive to health and healing. The body wants to heal, but it is blocked from doing so, for any number of myriad reasons. Acupuncture and Oriental medicine helps remove those blockages to your own natural ability to heal.

You are responsible for your health, too!
The second problem with the “fix me” attitude is that it takes away your responsibility to take good care of yourself. For example, I cannot help heal your irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease if you continue to eat foods that are inappropriate for your condition. The quality of your nutrition is just as much a part of your healing as my acupuncture and herbs. I can guide you to the healthiest foods and practices for your specific condition, but the responsibility for your daily nutrition rests solely on your shoulders.

Symptom vs. Cause:
The last problem with the “fix me” approach is that the ailments that people come to me with are usually symptoms of a larger pattern of disharmony. Often, symptoms will clear up quicker than their underlying cause will. Just because your chronic headaches are gone doesn’t mean that the reason you had the headaches to begin with is completely healed. In the words of Dr. Richard Tan, “It can be easy to chop down the tree, but digging up the roots and clearing the debris requires much more time and work.”

If you stop acupuncture care before the underlying causes of the issues are addressed, the headaches could return, or some other symptom take its place. This is why I always recommend tapering down your treatment frequency until you get to a maintenance level. Maintenance level, for most people, is once every 4 to 6 weeks.

The “Magic Needle” (aka “magic bullet”) Perception:
The second perception I observe is the “magic needle” attitude. Again, because there isn’t a clear understanding of acupuncture, all that is known is some story heard about a distant acquaintance who was cured from years of debilitating back pain after one acupuncture treatment.

People also hear the media, several popular celebrities and high profile MD’s touting the benefits of acupuncture. When you add in its foreign nature and seemingly mystical ideas about body energies, people have a tendency to place a subconscious aire of “magic” around acupuncture. And, in the human mind, once acupuncture is associated with “magic” it becomes associated with “miracles” and having to “believe in” acupuncture, and from there, for some people, it is only a short leap to “acupuncture is a religious practice.”

There are people who refuse to even consider getting acupuncture because of these “magical” associations that were never meant to be there.  And, many of those who do come for treatment have minds full of these notions. They are skeptical, but desperate. They are willing to try it, but have extremely unrealistic expectations, flip-flopping back and forth between “this will never work” and “I’m so excited for my miracle.”

But what about those who do get instant results?
On occasion, acupuncture does seem like magic: sometimes one acupuncture treatment will relieve 5 years of back pain permanently. On occasion a single visit to my office will result in a complete reversal of a year of knee pain. But, this is not the norm, and almost always these types of results are only achieved with patients who are extremely healthy otherwise, and have a very healthy lifestyle, where they have already eliminated any causative or aggravating factors, and just need one or two acupuncture treatments to “seal the deal.” Or on occasion, I will pinpoint a specific behavior, food, supplement or medication that is directly causing the symptom; the patient eliminates that cause, and “poof” like magic, the symptom disappears.

Acupuncture is not Magic:
But, let’s put this to rest right now: Acupuncture & Oriental medicine are not magic, miracles or religious practices. Energy is scientific. Quantum physics tell us that everything is actually pure energy, even solid matter. Everything has an energy field; and all energy fields are influenced by other energies.

Studies show that plants grow better when their owners talk to them. And micro-photography shows that patterns of water molecules rearrange themselves, depending on the energy that is around them: the energy of a baby laughing creates a different pattern than that of heavy metal music. Of course it does…you can feel that difference in your own body, can’t you? You are energy. (By the way, you are also 70% water.)

In the same way, acupuncture points are actually shown, with scientific equipment, to have more electromagnetic conductivity (energy) than other points on the skin. It isn’t magic. It is science. It is just not a science that we are familiar with and taught as a culture.

The fact that the ancient Chinese understood all of this illustrates how extraordinarily perceptive they really were.

Acupuncture takes time to work:
But, in general, people don’t know any of this, so they think acupuncture should work like magic. Many people get disappointed when they find out that acupuncture takes time to help correct the body’s energy imbalances and enhance the body’s own healing abilities. They get frustrated when the herbal medicine doesn’t mask and suppress their symptoms like pharmaceuticals do. And they don’t want to hear that they are likely going to have to change some things about their lifestyle. So, at that point, a number of people assume that since it doesn’t work like magic, acupuncture doesn’t work at all, and they stop treatment before they realize any benefits. They’ve missed out on what acupuncture and Oriental medicine can offer them.

The “Lifestyle” Perception:
The approach that allows people the most benefit from this medicine is what I call the “lifestyle” attitude.

Lifestyle is the whole kit-and-kaboodle. What people feed themselves, what they drink, what they breathe, how they care for themselves, when they rest, how they handle stress, how they think about themselves and their bodies, how they move their bodies, what kind of people they surround themselves with; all of these factors play a role in the state of health and wellbeing.

The ancient Chinese knew this: Oriental medicine actually has 8 branches, of which acupuncture and herbal medicine are only two. The other 6 are:

1. nutrition (your diet is the foundation of good health!)
2. massage & bodywork (traditionally this also included adjustments similar to chiropractic.)
3. exercise (something that you enjoy; healthy bodies crave movement.)
4. feng shui (this is how you arrange your environment; is your home and workplace a joyful and comfortable place for you? Is it uncluttered, non-toxic and contain things that make you smile?)
5. spirituality (finding your place in the universe; do you have a positive spirituality and/or purpose in your life that brings you peace?)
6. location (does the geographic location that you live in suit you well? Are you hot all the time, but live in Florida anyway? Does wind give you headaches, but you live in Chicago?)

Most Doctors of Oriental Medicine don’t provide services dealing with the last 3 branches listed, but, you can see how comprehensive Oriental medicine actually is, and how vast the concept of health can be.

Oriental medicine is a Lifestyle medicine:
Oriental medicine is meant to help guide you toward healthier choices for your life, and to help you back into balance and health when things go awry. And, once that condition is resolved, acupuncture is a great preventive therapy to stave off recurrence or other types of illnesses. In this way, Oriental medicine is meant to become part of your new, healthy lifestyle. If you aren’t actively experiencing symptoms, maintenance treatments of once every 4 to 6 weeks are invaluable to help you stay well. (And, they are a great way to relieve stress.)

The people that get the most from this medicine are those that use it for everything, for their whole lives. They get maintenance treatments to stay well, and if they do start to catch a cold or flu, they call for some herbs and a treatment. Are you getting a bladder infection? Some arthritis pain in your ankle? Stressed for a big exam? Insomnia after a divorce? Does your child have a fever or cough? Call for a treatment and some herbs. We treat it all, and acupuncture can work amazingly fast and well when it catches the early stages of an illness or symptoms.

Oriental medicine is an incredible gift that you have available to you that is very safe, very effective, views you wholistically and provides multitudes of benefits. I encourage you to take full advantage of it.

Dawn Balusik, AP, DOM

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