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Does acupuncture have a gradual or immediate effect on the body?

Q: Does acupuncture have a gradual or immediate effect on the body?

A: We suppose the clearest expression would be that the effect of using the needles is immediate, but the changes experienced by the patient can often take a while to be felt.

We think that a major challenge in helping the public understand the system of Chinese medicine is that the acupuncture points and the channels which connect them often look like an electrical wiring diagram when they are shown in books, and people have a sense that putting a needle in a point immediately activates the whole channel at once. Now this can be the case; we have had many sensitive patients over the years who have been able to describe in detail the whole pathway of a meridian including the deep internal pathways. However for the majority of people, although they will feel where the needle is placed, they are not going to experience changes immediately.

Some of the very ancient and beautiful Daoist paintings show the body as a landscape, with the stomach as a granary and so on, and the channel system is shown as a drainage and irrigation ditch. Needling a point is rather like opening a sluice gate and starting a flow which will have an immediate effect at the gate (which is why a practitioner will take a pulse at the wrist and pronounce themselves satisfied that something is happening) but take a while longer to reach the areas that matter. Otherwise it would be like watering a plant and seeing the leaves suddenly spring into life again.

Clearly there are some conditions where a change can be pretty fast, especially where the problem has been caused by blockage. Some acute short term problems can be reversed incredibly quickly if a patient is lucky, and we have seen headaches and backaches almost magically disappear. For the majority of patients, though, change is more evenly paced, and for many reasons this is a more natural way to recover good health. It can take a while to adjust to the stages of recovery, and having more time means that the system does not get 'jolted' back to good health.

The skill and art of the practitioner lies in using their experience to judge which people are likely to experience change quickly and which may have to wait a while for changes to happen. The longer the problem has existed and the deeper it has gone into the system, the longer it will usually take to address, however well the person may look on the outside. The Chinese tend to use the 'shen' or spirit seen in the eyes as a determinant of who will be most likely to recover well.