These two questions I get a lot. Patients often report very strange reactions to their first acupuncture treatment or to their first dose of herbs and want to know if acupuncture or herbs is to blame. Should they stop treatment? Did something go terribly wrong?
One of the skills of acupuncture is that it moves the qi and the blood of the body. It opens the channels and promotes the flow of energy in places that had previously been stuck. But as adults we have a lot of stuck-ness. One acupuncture treatment is the equivalent of starting to clean out the refrigerator, but pausing after you’ve unloaded all the contents of the top shelf. Not only is the inside of the fridge still sticky, but now your kitchen is a disaster and the food on the kitchen table is going bad.
Strong reactions to acupuncture are a clear sign you need to keep going.
When I first started acupuncture school I decided to try Chinese Herbs. So after a lovely acupuncture treatment I popped the allotted dose of the herbal formula I had been prescribed, got in my car, pulled onto the Mass Pike into rush hour traffic and began to drive back to Northampton. Before I could reach the tolls I started having a heaviness and deep stabbing ache in my right breast. The next morning I awoke to intense pain in the breast and sizeable lump. I freaked out.
I called the acupuncturist booked an appointment to have the acupuncture treatment from the day before “reversed.” But when I got to the office, they backtracked and said they had not done anything that could have caused the pain or the lump. I was furious. The next day I went to the doctor with an enormous egg sized red lump in my breast and was diagnosed me with a breast infection and put on antibiotics.
I’m sharing this story because I’ve had years of contemplating and studying to figure out that even though everyone said it wasn’t related to the acupuncture it certainly was. I don’t blame the herbs anymore. 7 minute turn around time for one dose of an incredibly weak herbal formula no longer sounds plausible to me, but a strong acupuncture treatment makes perfect sense.
If they honestly didn’t do anything related to the breasts that would mean they avoided the Liver, Spleen, Stomach, Lung, Pericardium, Heart and Kidney channels. In other words they gave me a horrible treatment that wouldn’t help me in any way.
If I could redo that life experience I would have an acupuncturist say to me, we did try to open the chest. This strong reaction is probably due to the fact that the meridians running through the chest are so clogged from strong emotion, worry and stress that things started to move around and got stuck. Go home and put a warm compress on the lump. Try gentle massage and easy chest opening stretches and keep taking those herbs, they will keep things moving in the chest.
Looking back I now am certain the qi blockage turned into an infection because of all the anger. If I had rested, massaged it and put a warm compress on it to encourage the qi to flow I would have been fine. But I was in the first month of grad school, I had been fighting viciously with my partner for a couple of months without finding a resolution and I was driving 8 hours a week to and from Boston. My stress level was out of control and I was carrying everything in my chest.
It is incredibly hard to know what causes things, but it is important to recognize if the incident is a sign of moving in the right direction or the wrong direction. With herbs it is easy to send people in the wrong direction, but learning the best course of treatment sometimes does involve finding the wrong roads in order to get to the right one. But with acupuncture it is important to think of the first two or three treatments as deep cleaning; sweeping the whole house, ceilings, floors, under the heater, under the couches, etc. In doing so everything gets dusty and the house gets very disorganized and then by the 3rd or 4th treatment everything looks a little sparkly and fresh. Stopping after the first or second treatment because things get worse is like leaving the big pile of dust in the middle of the living room floor. Things will eventually go back to how they were, but they certainly won’t get better.
Common Occurrences After First Treatments
- An uncomfortable ache in a weird location: Just like my story the channels are opening but if you ever have tried to unclog a drain you know that when you make a little progress often you just discover a bigger clog further down the line.
- Extreme Fatigue: I hear that patients went home and napped for two hours after their first treatment a lot. That is very helpful information. It could be that the treatment was too strong for you and we need to do a lighter treatment next time. It also could be that we settled the nervous system enough that the body felt safe enough to admit fatigue. This is very common within the first few treatments as we build and strengthen the body and until the sleep improves.
- Getting Sick: Yes, on occasion acupuncture can bring on sickness, the same way that vacations bring on sickness. We all have had the experience of being super stressed and then finally going on vacation and within the first day of vacation the body shuts down and we get a terrible cold. People who are very well trained at managing their body and containing their stress can prevent sickness until the body relaxes. Acupuncture strengthens and relaxes the body and can sometimes allow the body to fight off illness when before the treatment it wouldn’t have been strong enough. That being said there could also be germs on the door out of the office and you got exposed five minutes after leaving the treatment table and there is no relationship at all.
- Poor Sleep the Night of an Acupuncture Treatment: This happens. I’ve been getting acupuncture treatments weekly for years and this still happens to me on occasion, though much less frequently. Moving the qi is a profound action and it does powerfully stir things up. Sometimes the qi just wants to keep flowing and going about its business. Try to stay calm and make it through the evening, usually the next night you will sleep like a rock.
Bottom line, don’t sit home and stew. Call your acupuncturist or herbalist and ask questions. That is what they are there for.
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