While there are many benefits of acupuncture, there’s no way of knowing in advance how your body will react. In some cases, you may experience a healing crisis—meaning that you may feel worse before you feel better.
Larissa Costa, a physiotherapist certified by the Acupuncture Foundation of Canada Institute, reports that most of her patients who receive acupuncture “either feel a bit better, or there is no change.” In the case of one patient who experienced a temporary worsening of symptoms after receiving acupuncture, Costa says the patient felt more tired and sore after acupuncture but that those symptoms lessened a few days later.
Dr. Hong Jin is a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine’s fellowship faculty who speaks from experience as an acupuncture practitioner, educator, and beneficiary. She says most of her patients report feeling better after receiving treatment. She recalls one person who, after hip surgery, was experiencing stiffness, soreness, and pain, especially in her hip. “After the first [acupuncture] session, she cried for an hour,” Dr. Jin recalls. After the second session, the patient’s pain decreased by 50 percent. Had this person experienced a healing crisis?
What’s Happening in an Acupuncture-Induced Healing Crisis?
While manifestations of pain are different for everybody, in the case of Dr. Jin's patient, she said it felt like there was a blocked drain in her body. Acupuncture talks about meridians in the body, vertical channels where the qi (energy) and blood flow. For this particular patient, acupuncture “disturbed” the backlogged meridian, which the patient felt was like a blocked drain. The patient’s body had to move through the initial painful disturbance in unblocking that drain.
Sometimes, Dr. Jin notes, related issues can surface for acupuncture patients. Mind, body, and spirit are interconnected, and when it comes to physical pain from something like surgery, acupuncture treatment may “open a can of worms,” at which point, she says, “people can get scared and shove the emotions down.” Often, Dr. Jin notes, “there are emotional issues over the surgery.” Part of the healing crisis is allowing those issues to come out into the open.
Why Stick with Acupuncture?
If you are among the patients who first experience a worsening of symptoms after undergoing acupuncture treatment, you may wonder if you ought to continue. “Try the treatment twice or three times before deciding if there are more ‘good’ days than bad ones,” Costa advises—unless there was a major issue after the very first session. “If it was just a flare-up that went away in a couple of days, try again and see if it happens again. The acupuncturist can change the points, and likely the second session will be different.”
Dr. Jin notes that your body’s reaction to each needle and treatment session provides more information for both you and the acupuncturist to learn how to work with your body. If someone is apprehensive, Dr. Jin encourages patients to do their own research online and by talking to experienced physicians and patients who have received acupuncture.
In a nutshell, Dr. Jin explains that acupuncture is about restoring the body’s balance. The needles “can stimulate endorphins and release them into the body,” and research shows that this can help reduce pain. Acupuncture can also help with issues other than pain, such as insomnia.
“We need to treat mind, body, and spirit together,” she says. Keep in mind that treating one area, such as physical pain, may bring emotional issues to the surface as well.
If You Experience a Healing Crisis
If you feel worse after receiving acupuncture, keep in touch with your acupuncturist. The information you provide about your symptoms will help them adjust their course if necessary. Dr. Jin adds that it’s also important that you stay in touch with yourself. She recommends meditation and deep breathing to take note of where you are at—mentally, physically, and emotionally. And be gentle with yourself. Dr. Jin suggests rest, herbs, and gentle exercise such as tai chi.
If acupuncture has caused a healing crisis for you, the good news is there are many resources to help you determine if it’s worthwhile to proceed.
For more on acupuncture’s benefits, read “Acupuncture Can Help Treat High Blood Pressure.”