It’s often the case that immediately after an acupuncture treatment a patient will experience a kind of dreamy, euphoric state. When I was in school students and teachers would refer to the after-effects of acupuncture as “aculand.” It’s not something any acupuncturist is attempting to achieve, it just seems to be one of the side effects of treatment.

My guess is it’s responsible for the items I often find left behind in my office or treatment room – checkbooks, sunglasses, watches. And it’s certainly on my mind when I schedule subsequent appointments. I always write them down on an appointment card and make sure they end up in a purse or pocket.

A research study of short term reactions to acupuncture

So imagine my surprise when I came across a research report on this very subject (“Short term reactions to acupuncture – a cross-sectional survey of patient reports” in Acupuncture in Medicine (2005, 23(3): 112-120 [abstract]). The authors don’t use the term “aculand.” Maybe it’s a term that’s not going to make it into the research vocabulary.

It’s a UK study with a sample size of 9408 patients! They were asked about their reactions during or immediately after treatment by practitioners of their choice (a total of 638 different acupuncturists).

The results

Well, I have to say, I was surprised at the frequency of responses. An amazing 95% of the patients reported experiencing at least one short-term reaction. The most common reaction? 79% reported feeling “relaxed.” Next, 33% felt “energized.” (This is more than 100% already because patients could report more than one response. The average number of responses was 1.8.) Next, 24% reported feeling “tired or drowsy.”

There were some responses on the “negative” side of the ledger, too. Which doesn’t surprise me. Temporary discomfort can be a part of healing. Some people get worse before they get better. It is totally normal for symptoms occasionally to flare up before they resolve. It’s my experience that if symptoms do get worse, they usually will last 24-48 hours and then improve.

And sometimes a small amount of pain is not really a negative thing. It can be the sensation of de qi, an integral component of acupuncture that is receiving its own research attention.

There was a very low response level for persistent “aggravation of symptoms” (1.8%). Interestingly, only 13 patients (an incredibly low 0.14%) responded that they were unwilling to have acupuncture again because of these “negative” reactions.

My new perspective

First of all, thanks to Hugh MacPherson and Kate Thomas for having conducted and published this study. It’s important to bring objective information to the table when talking about patient reactions to acupuncture. I was aware of the existence of short-term reactions, and my patients sometimes refer to them in their testimonials, but this study alerts me to its nearly universal – and variable — nature.

I’ll be watching my patients a little more closely. And maybe reducing the content of my lost and found drawer.

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