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  • Writer's pictureClaire Norton MBaCC

When acupuncture doesn’t work

Updated: Apr 18

Acupuncture is a popular and effective healthcare system based on ancient principles which go back nearly two thousand years. A growing body of evidenced-based clinical research shows that Traditional Acupuncture safely treats a wide range of common health complaints. Many attribute acupuncture to their improved quality of life, reduction in symptoms and improvement in wellbeing. What about the patients that don’t achieve the desired results?

Here are my top 7 reasons for when acupuncture doesn’t work :

1.You didn’t seek a qualified acupuncturist.

In the UK, acupuncture is currently unregulated (scary hey) which means anyone can set up shop and stick needles in you claiming to offer acupuncture. It's becoming increasingly more challenging to establish whether your practitioner is a qualified acupuncturist or someone who has completed a very brief course. It would be wise to consider the efficacy of your acupuncture treatment if your practitioner has only completed a day/week/month training in acupuncture in comparison to those who have studied Traditional Acupuncture full time for a minimum of 3 years.

There are only two governing bodies that self regulate Traditional Acupuncture in the UK, be sure to visit a member of either the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) or the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ATCM) to ensure that you are seeking a degree-trained Traditional Acupuncturist. This is in contrast to a health care practitioner/ physical therapist who has completed a short course in a form of acupuncture often referred to as dry needling/ medical acupuncture. These methods are sometimes taught to health care professionals in shorter courses and used by nurses/ physiotherapists as an auxiliary technique. Whilst dry needling has its place, it has little bearing on Traditional Acupuncture and how it is practiced. Both use similar needles and are regularly referred to as ‘acupuncture’ without the style differentiation. Whilst dry needling/ medical acupuncture may be helpful in some instances, the two styles are non comparable. If you are seeking acupuncture as a holistic treatment as used for centuries throughout the globe, it would be a good idea to seek a traditional acupuncturist.

2. You didn’t follow the treatment plan.

We can’t create that change in your hormones if you insist on only coming every other week. This is a mistake both acupuncturists and their patients make. Personally I see the best change initially when we start with twice a week visits. This makes a HUGE difference and gets you to your health goals much faster. Every acupuncture treatment should take you two steps forward and you should only take one step back before you’re back in the clinic. This way you build up a healthy reserve and once your goals are reached you and your acupuncturist can start to reduce treatment frequency. Taking one step forward and one step back between each treatment gets you no where fast. Follow and trust the plan.
- Dr. Megan Gray @ Balanced Thistle Acupuncture

Rome wasn’t built in a day, you may have suffered with your main complaint for over 20 years, and still many expect to be fixed in one session. Well, whilst possible and we LOVE when longterm conditions resolve very quickly, let's not expect you to be in the small percentage of patients who’s conditions do resolve in a matter of one or two sessions. Even if you were one of the lucky few that do, we still have work to do to keep you this way. Traditional Acupuncture has an accumulative effect similar to antibiotics; one dose is unlikely to be as effective as a course. We have two hurdles to jump in acupuncture: the first is to achieve improvement in symptoms ; the second is to have the results ‘hold.’ Either hurdle can be of varying difficulty which is why we cannot predict start-to-finish how many sessions you will need on our first meeting, we can only have a greater idea after working with you.

4. You drank caffeine before and after sessions.

Research suggests that caffeine can have a negative impact on treatment outcome. Fujita et al (2007) concluded that ‘…oral intake of caffeine, a potent adenosine receptor antagonist, interferes with acupuncture analgesia, even at a low dose…’ adenosine having a key role in the anti-inflammatory mechanism of acupuncture. Furthermore, caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and acupuncture activates the parasympathetic nervous system: imagine two engines pulling in different directions and getting no where fast. It is no secret that I encourage insomnia and anxiety patients to reduce caffeine intake as caffeine is a stimulant that with frequent use can cause chronic insomnia and anxiety in some patients. You can imagine that ignoring such a recommendation and consuming 5 caffeinated drinks per day during treatment may impair results and could be likened to ‘filling up the bath with the plug out.’

5. You stopped medication (NEVER EVER DO THIS).

Firstly, never stop prescribed medication without speaking to your GP. This is important: it is unsafe to stop prescribed medications without a GP’s consent.

Secondly, in my experience working with patients, many are keen to stop medications when they come for acupuncture. Another reason not to stop medications is because it may also distort the outcome. For example, when I am working with acne patients that have stopped their steroid medication, they can experience a flare up of symptoms and its easy to contribute the flare up to the new change… ‘acupuncture’. Acupuncture does not cause acne flare ups; the withdrawal from the steroid can.

Please keep medications the same at the start of sessions so both you and the practitioner can determine your response (with less variables). This is also the same with pain meds if you start acupuncture and stop your medication. In this instance we are comparing acupuncture to ‘no acupuncture’ instead of comparing the results of pain meds vs one acupuncture session. Please don’t do this, allow us to build up the the cumulative benefits of acupuncture and then ,with your GP’s consent ,we may be able to reduce some meds after a series of sessions.

5. You didn’t follow the lifestyle advice.

Your acupuncturist may offer dietary or lifestyle recommendations to help achieve optimum results from your sessions. This may be dependant on your specific presentation and diagnosis and be fundamental in respect to treatment success. One example of this is the reduction of caffeine, sugar and alcohol in menopausal symptoms. Those that rejoice in great improvement, quickly start to go back to their previous lifestyle and symptoms return. The efficacy of the acupuncture is the same but again we are ‘filling up the bath with the plug out’ by not following lifestyle advice.

6. Acupuncture may not be the treatment for you.

Acupuncture is absolutely magical, but it's not always the answer. For example, if the patient is seeking help for weight gain, they are consuming takeaways for breakfast lunch and dinner then acupuncture might not be my number one choice. Seeking a dietician or nutritionalist may be a preferred approach. Perhaps followed by psychological support if there is a reason or a tendency to ‘self destruct’ and overeat. Acupuncture may have some place by reducing cravings but it wouldn't be my first choice for this example. My preference with this particular presentation would be nutritional support firstly and then if the patient is willing to adopt a 3/4 pronged approach then acupuncture may be a choice selected in the mix.

7. You went back to the situation that caused the issue in the first place.

In some instances, it can be very clear what caused someones presenting main complaint. For example, the cause of someone’s pain may be from exerting themselves physically in excessive and strenuous exercise. If we manage to reduce the pain and the patient then returns to that initial activity (such as excessive weight lifting), you may experience a return of the main complaint. Another example could be the distress of somebody leaving an abusive relationship. Acupuncture could help to reduce anxiety and support the person in finding their confidence once more. If the patient then returns back to the abusive relationship, you may then see a return of anxiety and distress.

Acupuncture has its limitations as is the case with every modality, there are short falls in every system of medicine which is why there are many different practices of medicine and healing. There is no panacea, but for many acupuncture can provide relief from troubling symptoms. I hope that this guide helps you to make the most out of your acupuncture sessions.


Dr Meghan Gray (2020) available at

Fujita T, Feng C, Takano T. Presence of caffeine reversibly interferes with efficacy of acupuncture-induced analgesia. Scientific Reports. 2017;7:3397.

The British Acupuncture Council (2020) available at

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