I have often heard people say, “I had acupuncture once. It didn’t work,” and it makes me laugh a little. I always follow this by asking, “What were you being treated for?” The answers rarely fail to astound me: “I had it twice right after I had rotator cuff surgery. I was in so much pain. It didn’t work;” “I have irritable bowel syndrome and I went once and it didn’t work;” “I suffer from migraines and I went a few times but it didn’t help.” Seriously??? With ailments like those, you thought one or two acupuncture treatments would cure you? As one of my colleagues says, “expecting full recovery for most ailments in one or two treatments is like licking the side of an aspirin and wondering why your headache didn’t go away.” If acupuncture was that magical, we’d all be millionaires and you’d all be waiting in line for treatment.
But how long does it take?
Well, that depends on the nature of the condition, the general health and health history of the individual being treated, and lifestyle factors such as work, family and other outside influences. People with poor diets who don’t exercise tend to take longer to heal. Individuals with underlying conditions like diabetes often require more treatment for a given condition than a patient without an underlying condition would need. A general rule of thumb is the longer you’ve suffered from a condition, the longer it takes to heal it, but an acupuncturist must take all these factors into consideration when determining how many treatments a person will need. Acupuncture must be administered in the proper dose and because the effects of acupuncture are cumulative, dosing must also be timed appropriately.
When assessing healing time, it’s helpful to take a step back and review how long it takes the body to naturally repair itself. Your body is made up of different cells, each with different functions and lifespans. On average, the cells in your body are replaced every 7 to 10 years. Just as you need to replace the tires on a car more often than the transmission, some parts of your body need to be refreshed sooner than others. Cells that make up your skin are replaced every 2 to 3 weeks.1 However, new collagen growth can take anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks to complete. This is why we tell patients it may take a month before they start to see results from facial rejuvenation acupuncture treatments.
Red blood cells, meanwhile, last for about four months. White blood cells, the main players in fighting infections, can last from a few days to a little over a week. In contrast, your fat cells live a fairly long time — an average age of 10 years1 (So unfair!) while we get fresh liver cells about once every 300 days.2
How then, can we expect acupuncture to solve all our ails in one or two treatments? The good news is that acupuncture reduces inflammation and helps balance the nervous system, so many patients do feel less stressed, sleep better and experience pain reduction after just a few treatments. In fact, a recent patient coming for stress reduction stated after her second treatment, “I can’t wait to come back. I feel SO MUCH BETTER already!”
In general, conditions like stress, acute onset Bell’s Palsy, muscle aches, sprains and strains require fewer treatments than more moderate conditions like arthritis, anxiety, migraines or sciatica. Even in mild to moderate conditions, the amount of treatment required will depend on the person. If we’re treating someone with frozen shoulder who is a machinist and must use their shoulder daily to operate a machine, it’s going to take longer to heal that person than someone who works at a desk, for example. If we’re treating golf, tennis or pickleball elbow and the person is still actively engaged in that sport, it will take longer for that person to heal than someone who is providing the rest needed for acupuncture to work more quickly.
Complex conditions like multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis or peripheral neuropathy may require months or even lifelong care. This may seem extensive until you consider that, on average, human peripheral nerves regenerate at a rate of approximately 1 inch per month.3 So if we’re treating a neurodegenerative disease like peripheral neuropathy – where the nerves are dying and people lose sensation in their hands and feet – it’s going to take a few months to get those nerves to regenerate!
Interested in acupuncture to regulate your menstrual cycle or to assist with fertility? There are myriad of factors that determine how much treatment you will need including your age, hormone levels, sperm quality (if male), diagnosed reason for infertility (if known) and more.
Everyone responds to acupuncture differently, so treatment ranges can vary widely. When you come for an evaluation, Dr. Kaplan will review your medical history and current condition, and based on her clinical experience, will provide an honest assessment of how many treatments you will need to feel better. If she doesn’t think she can help you, she’ll tell you that, too. Perhaps, like many of her patients, you’ll end up thinking she really is a magician after all.
- Höke A. A (heat) shock to the system promotes peripheral nerve regeneration. J Clin Invest. 2011 Nov;121(11):4231-4. doi: 10.1172/JCI59320. Epub 2011 Oct 3. PMID: 21965324; PMCID: PMC3204849.