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When Acupuncture Does Not Work

By Mei Li

Many people believe acupuncture does not work. Sometimes this is an uninformed assumption, but often it’s a belief held by those who have tried acupuncture to little or no avail. So, why didn’t acupuncture work for these people?

While living for eight years in China, where I gave and observed thousands of acupuncture treatments, I identified certain commonalities among people who have success with acupuncture. Since being back in the U.S., I’ve noticed that many of these things apply here as well. People who see positive results from acupuncture share several characteristics.

Here are three key requirements for effective acupuncture care.

Gotta Get the Right Dose

In today’s world, instant gratification is in high demand. People who are new to acupuncture often expect immediate results, and stop coming when they don’t get them. Rome was not built in a day, and acupuncture is not going to solve your problems overnight.

Acupuncture works cumulatively, meaning one treatment builds on the next.

I consider a course of treatment to be 10 sessions, received once weekly or more often, depending on the severity, chronicity and urgency of the problem. The first 10 sessions commonly produce some improvement, or even complete recovery. But again, it depends on the nature of your condition.

Certain acute problems—for example, neck stiffness and pain, muscle strains and sprains from sports injuries, early-stage carpal tunnel syndrome—typically resolve in five-to-ten sessions, sometimes less.

Chronic diseases, especially those associated with functional weakness of organs or low immunity, require long-term treatment. Examples of these more chronic conditions include most cases of infertility, asthma, allergies, some skin disorders like psoriasis, and neurological diseases.

Urgent conditions, such as severe migraines or post-operative pain, may require two to three treatments per week until symptoms are controlled, followed by less frequent visits until the condition is stabilized. Eventually, you can go down to once a month or less for maintenance.

Similar to how medications are ineffective unless you take the prescribed dose, if you don’t get acupuncture frequently enough—consistently, and within an appropriate time frame—it is unlikely to yield the desired result.

Gotta Have Enough Energy

Another key factor in the success of acupuncture has to do with constitutional strength. If at the outset of acupuncture treatment you’re already physically or emotionally depleted, or suffering from a debilitating disease or exhausting lifestyle, it’s going to take longer than usual to see results.

Acupuncture works with the energy in your body to promote healing. If your energy is low to start, there’s less to work with. Before the complaints that brought you in the door can be addressed, the acupuncturist needs to work on restoring your baseline.

Acupuncturists can boost energy with certain acupuncture points and other modalities such as moxibustion (burning an herb called mugwort against the skin, often near an acupuncture point, to promote movement throughout the channels). There are also self-care energy-boosting techniques, such as acupressure and qigong exercises, that your acupuncturist may recommend using at home to accelerate the healing process.

If you generally run on the low side energy-wise, or if you have a chronic illness or are going through an especially stressful or tiring period in your life, expect a little preliminary work. Depending on how wiped out you are, boosting your energy levels so that the real work can begin can take anywhere from one to several sessions.

Gotta Eat and Live Right

Diet and lifestyle contribute significantly to a person’s likelihood of success with acupuncture. Along the lines of what I said above, if your body is not being properly nourished and cared for on a regular basis, it’s going to face an uphill battle when it starts trying to heal itself.

During the intake portion of an acupuncture appointment, acupuncturists usually ask people about their daily eating habits. They’re trying to gauge whether diet could be contributing to or aggravating symptoms. Sometimes even foods that are considered “healthy” according to Western dietary standards may be detrimental for your specific constitution.

In addition to diet, acupuncturists ask about lifestyle, things like when you go to bed, how much alcohol you drink, how many hours you work, etcetera. All of these things inform your overall picture of health and help acupuncturists determine your starting place for treatment.

Acupuncture requires thinking about health in a whole new way from what most of us are used to. Healing with acupuncture happens when the patient and practitioner enter a true partnership, a situation where the acupuncturist really listens to the patient and the patient is open to a new perspective on health. Only then can acupuncture produce the outcomes we’ve come to expect.

Featured photo by Sara Calabro

Mei Li has been practicing acupuncture since 2003. After graduating from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in New York City, she completed a three-year traditional apprenticeship in Beijing, China with Wang Ju-yi, a world-renowned practitioner of classical Chinese medicine. In addition to seeing patients at her practice in Honolulu, Hawaii, Mei is a Chinese-English medical interpreter as well an editor of many English publications of Chinese medical literature.

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This article pretty much explains why acupuncture doesn’t work sometimes. It is like dieting. There is no diet program in the world that will help everyone. We are all individual and different.

Great article!


Thank you. Acupuncture has been life changing for me, but you are correct. It takes time, patience and consistency.

Mike D.

Great Article! It mentions EXACTLY what you said today about the patient’s constitution/energy. How is that for a coincidence? :-)


Acupuncture is one of those things that really divide people. Skeptics, like myself, will always be convinced that acupuncture has little to no effect on them. Proponents, like yourself, will usually find fault with the patient, i.e lifestyle, energy level, patience, etc. I was told after a total of 8 sessions with little or no results that my negative attitude that was to blame. This may be true. It really does seem to me that acupuncture ONLY works on people who actually believe it will work.


I wanted acupuncture to work. I tried to keep faith that acupuncture would work, as it was one of the few options I had yet to exhaust. I was not one of those people who walk into the acupuncture clinic with an “I’m going to prove this guy is full of it” attitude. However, after three months of seeing NO benefits, I called my acupuncturist to cancel my next appointment and explain that I did not plan to return for any further treatments at the time. His response was to get downright defensive and tell me I hadn’t given Chinese medicine a fair shot. Maybe I hadn’t, but after three months of $65 sessions, I’d have to be crazy to continue shelling out $65 (plus the cost of herbs) at a time for a service that had showed me absolutely zero indication that it would alleviate my suffering, especially after the acupuncturist had told me that people often see benefits after their very first treatment. Every wad of money that I handed over for a treatment wasn’t working was a wad of money that I would not have to invest in something else that perhaps might. I’d love for someone to prove me wrong and show me that acupuncture actually does have value, but unfortunately, I cannot afford to invest a fifth of my salary in a treatment that may or may not work again.


I have been using acupuncture as my primary form of health care for the last 13 years. I will say at throughout the 13 years there were times in which I felt so unbelievably dick that I checked myself into the e.r. only to leave with your typical list of appointments to see different specialist. After every e.r. Visit I would return to my acupuncturist and he would fix me up. Yes, certain issues took multiple sessions and lots of herbs but I always walked away FULLY recovered. Along the years I referred many friends to him as well some of which had amazing success like myself and others nothing at all. I have noticed the key is the people that went in with a positive attitude and the ones that went in feeling the dr had to prove himself to them. I’ve also noticed that who the acupuncturist is matters. I’ve tried different acupuncturist throughout the years but the only ones I seem to have success with are the Asian acupuncturist or the ones that studied in China. It works!!! So for those of you not sure I’m living proof. Here’s a list of everything either my friends or I have had completely cured by acupuncture over the years.

Muscle Sprain
Stiff Neck
Low Energy
Yeast infection
Scar tissue
Chronic Throat infections
Ear aches
St d’s
Back Pain

Need I say more… :-)

Matthew Priest

There are three ways that acupuncture is known to reduce pain perception, involving blood flow, nerve signals and the relief of natural pain-killers. I don’t know anything about meridians and find it hard to relate to notions of energy flow and qui, but the scientific explanations do make sense to me. For a simple break-down of the three explanations, I suggest the following link:

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