By Deborah Rothman, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac.
I once hired a magician for my son’s birthday party. I remember vividly the children’s eager faces as they watched the magician perform his tricks. He transformed different items before our eyes, pulled coins out of the children’s ears, and even pulled a bunny rabbit from a hat. It was mesmerizing, even though the adults chaperoning knew it was sleight of hand and not real “magic.” I am often surprised that there are certain adults who look at acupuncture with the same perception. I am not sure if it is because they simply don’t understand how it works, or because they are looking to me for a miracle. Perhaps it is a combination of the two.
I have no training in magic tricks. I can barely shuffle a deck of cards to get a good poker game going. Acupuncture is not magic. It is science-based medicine. The best results are accomplished with a series of treatments. Thus one’s expectations need to be on par with that.
A number of years ago, a patient came into my office. She was scheduled for back surgery for two weeks later. She had suffered severe debilitating back pain for over 23 years. She expected me to be able to transform and relieve her back pain in the two weeks’ time–something her orthopedist and her physical therapist were unable to do over all those years. I am not certain why I was only given two weeks; perhaps it was the misconception. Regardless, I felt it my duty to educate the patient as to what she could realistically expect from continued acupuncture treatments.
I find myself clarifying this often during an initial conversation with a potential new patient. My favorite saying, as my husband and close friends can attest, is: “If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said.” I am always forthcoming with my patients and try to portray a realistic picture of what they can expect. If someone calls me and discusses an acute injury, or something that has happened in their lives recently, I am comfortable explaining that while each person is different, and their bodies may react differently, based upon my experience treating something or someone in similar circumstances I expect it should take, for example, approximately 2—6 treatments for their issues to resolve.
More often than not, my patients come to me after they have exhausted all other measures. These patients have run the gamut of various doctors and therapies, and cannot find a common thread for a number of issues that ail them. Usually it is a complex case where there are many medical issues going on at the same time. This is especially true when illnesses have been neglected for a long time. At first the body whispers to us when something is out of whack. Often we ignore it in the hopes of it going away. Only after some time does it start shouting at us, overacting and causing other symptoms that we can no longer ignore.
For example, someone who has an occasional headache may choose to take Tylenol and to just get past it, whereas someone who has chronic migraine headaches may be suffering for years. Their headaches are often debilitating and accompanied by excessive nausea, putting them out of commission. They find themselves unable to take care of their family or go to work, and can no longer ignore the condition.
In a scenario like that, I am quick to explain to my prospective patients what their expectations might be. I may recommend biweekly treatments during which they can expect the headaches to decrease in intensity and severity after about two weeks of treatment. They may also see a decrease in frequency at around the third week. However, realistically, they should not expect their headaches to completely resolve for about two months. I recommend they come in every so often for a maintenance treatment to ensure they are holding their own. I prefer to give a worst-case scenario and have the patient be pleasantly surprised.
Recently, a patient was referred by word of mouth from their friend who had a good experience in my practice. When we spoke, she asked me to text her because her headache was so severe at the time, she was unable to muster up enough energy to focus to write down the appointment time we had scheduled. She did manage to let me know she didn’t believe in holistic medicine. I was successful in squeezing her in for an early-morning appointment the next day, as I couldn’t allow her to continue to suffer like that. This patient returned to my office for the second visit saying she was eating and functioning, and her headache was pretty mild. I continue to treat her in the hopes of eradicating the migraines entirely. Her amazingly fast response was extremely gratifying for both of us. I see these types of situations often, but still prefer to present them as atypical results.
It is tremendously satisfying to accompany people on their wellness journey. I try not to get frustrated by patients who quit after one or two visits, despite my educating them from the outset about how acupuncture works. I am quick to explain that acupuncture builds on itself and I don’t want them to waste their time or money if they are not committed. What frustrates me is knowing what a shame it is that ample time wasn’t given for their body to make the necessary change.
While I am confident they would have had beneficial results, I also know I am not a magician. Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years because it works. When we are analyzing our health, we are in it for the long run and for the lasting benefits.
But some of my patients still refer to me as a magician.
Deborah Rothman is a licensed acupuncturist and a diplomate of acupuncture with a private practice in Woodmere. Comments and questions are welcome. She can be reached at 516-203-4500 or deborah@AcuZen.com. Please visit www.AcuZen.com and follow Acuâ€‘Zen on Facebook.