What happens when acupuncture fails? Up front only a little; the patient stops coming and the acupunk moves on. But there’s more happening behind the scenes. Acupuncture is constantly proving and re-proving itself since there is no conclusive, scientific proof of its treatment validity. It seems from the biomedical POV each treatment with its idiosyncrasies is a population of 1. Basically everything is so unique to that treatment (not person) that the results can’t be generalized to a larger population. So when it fails, many say “Well, since it’s not scientifically valid what more could I expect? How could those tiny needles help something that M.D.s have not been able to figure out?” And that’s it. They will dismiss acupuncture for many if not all future medical issues. But let’s consider the situation from a wider angle.
It’s common for acupunks to be the last resort for medical problems, often falling behind even chiropractors. Chiros have established more legitimacy, enough to get some of their service covered by Medicare Part B. So I and other acupunks often get people right before their surgery, after many rounds of meds that have either not worked or worked but with too many side effects, or for conditions that have drastic or no effective biomedical treatments. In these cases we are the alternative of last resort; I accept this situation because I have no control over it but also because as the last resort results are “miraculous.” The body *is* miraculous since what I input is a message with needles and the patient gets the output of improved health.
And here’s some interestingness: in some cases I only have 1 treatment to convince the person that acupuncture works. So after weeks, months, possibly years of biomedical treatments with unsatisfactory results I sometimes have 1 treatment max to change something. I once had a patient who went to a chiropractor for 2 months and gave acupuncture only 1 try. Huh.
The first hurdle of treatment, at least as a community acupunk, is that I needle primarily or exclusively the extremities, head and neck (distal acupuncture). There are allowances, but that’s pretty much it. So when I’m dealing with musculoskeletal issues, especially back problems, the patient sounds incredulous and sometimes offended that I’m not going to insert needles into where it hurts. I think this is why I sometimes have only 1 shot. And I usually change something, but sometimes I don’t. The ones when I miss are the 1-and-dones who then dismiss acupuncture for many if not all future medical issues. The one’s I “get” become believers, even if only for their specific pain.
For more chronic issues and internal medicine type things, the person might be more willing to come in for 4-8 treatments. In these cases what may change is not the main complaint but other issues around it. That at least buys me some time to get the main complaint under some kind of control. But again, I’m under the gun. I don’t have as much time as biomedical practitioners do before the patient decides to quit.
Here’s the thing—if my treatment didn’t work for you that means that I failed, not acupuncture. That means that I have misinterpreted your situation, that I have misunderstood it’s location, that I missed. There’s no excuse for missing, only reasons. And each failure means I review, research, and go through the steps in my mind to figure out how I could possibly get a different outcome. Then I have to let go, because hanging on to too many failures messes with my head and it shows in my treatments: more needles across more places without any rhyme or reason other than “I hope I covered all my bases.” Acupuncture is enough of a shotgun without me peppering the person in the hopes that I’ve covered my bases. It’s a challenge to provide care while feeling that unless you get each move right, you have just created an anti-acupuncture ambassador that spreads the word that not only do you suck at your job but also that acupuncture everywhere doesn’t work.
So what happens when acupuncture fails? Well, most often it means I have failed, not acupuncture. Those who believe acupuncture to be an elaborate placebo will say this is a cop-out. I can’t argue against that because like I said, there’s no definitive scientific proof of its medical utility. But that’s irrelevant in light of the fact that someone has come to me for help and I have been unable to provide it. For the patient failure means loss of hope, continued suffering, and most likely a return to biomedical treatments. Not many will go deeper into alternative medicine unless they are terminal. For all people involved failure is a blow to the psyche and to the hope for something more.