Talking With Your Doctor About Acupuncture

Hello out there, internet! I hope that you all have been doing well and are enjoying your summer. Today’s topic is an important one- we are going to be talking about how to discuss acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine with your medical providers who aren’t acupuncturists.

It’s estimated that about 1/3 of Americans have tried some form of alternative medicine. This encompasses a wide variety of things including acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, energy work like Reiki, and more. It has become increasingly common for Americans to explore non-traditional methods to address their health concerns. As more and and more people explore these alternative treatments, it is a given that there will be some discourse with regular medical providers (doctors, nurses, surgeons, etc.) about if those modalities are helpful/harmful/useless.

While I can’t speak to other non-TCM therapies, I want to help you figure out how to navigate those conversations about acupuncture and TCM that you might encounter with your regular medical team. Some Western medical providers are very much fans of acupuncture, some don’t know much about it, and some think it is a pointless procedure and a placebo effect at best.

It is part of my job to educate other medical professionals about TCM, and I try to communicate with any healthcare professional that I encounter what I do and and how it works. I have found that the vast majority of medical providers that I talk to about acupuncture are very interested in learning about TCM and what it can treat. I’ve literally had conversations about acupuncture during almost every medical procedure I’ve had in the last decade (only my dentist escapes my blabbering through the silencing power of Novocaine). Because my job is somewhat unusual, I am used to having these discussions and don’t get my feathers ruffled when someone might not have a positive view of acupuncture. That’s on me to explain TCM to those who don’t know much about it, and I like to think I do that pretty well.

But I (and my big mouth) won’t always be there to do that for you and your doctors! It can be intimidating to tell your doctor that you want to try exploring acupuncture. From my patients who have had these discussions with their doctors, I’ve found that the conversation tends to go three different ways:

  1. The doctor gives the patient a high-five and a hell yes! (These are often the same doctors who refer patients to me because they know acupuncture is effective…these are obviously my favorites) More and more doctors are realizing (especially in light of the opioid addiction epidemic sweeping our country) that there is real value to exploring non-medicinal therapies, especially for treating pain. Recent recommendations from the American College of Physicians and the Joint Commission reflect this- these institutions are recommending that doctors learn about acupuncture and possibly recommend it to their patients as a treatment for pain. Indeed, the American College of Physicians now recommends acupuncture as a first-line treatment for both acute and chronic low back pain.
  2. The doctor gives the patient a “meh.” Basically this a neutral response- either they don’t know a lot about acupuncture and/or they aren’t convinced it will help patients. These are the conversations I want to help you feel more confident expressing your opinion in.
  3. The doctor says acupuncture is useless and/or a placebo effect. To be honest, I have heard of very few of these reactions…most doctors are good people who want to do right by their patients, and very few of them would actively discourage their patients from seeking relief from a low-risk procedure like acupuncture. These folks can be tough to convince, but hopefully some of the strategies I’ll discuss next can help.

Alright, so you know you want to get acupuncture or you’re already having it and you want to let your doctor know. Ultimately having this conversation is for your benefit- you want to make sure all members of your healthcare team are on the same page, and everyone is aware of who is doing what to help you, the patient, feel your best. ¬†And, again, most doctors are wonderful people who want to help their patients…very few of them are going to be anything but supportive of your decision, so hopefully these conversations will always be stress-free. It also helps increase the visibility and acceptance of acupuncture and TCM within the medical community when doctors know that their patients are receiving (and benefiting from) acupuncture.

So here are the most important things to do in this conversation:

  • Be confident. It is your health and ultimately your decision to pursue acupuncture, no matter what your doctor personally thinks about it. This is the most important one. There’s a reason you want to explore acupuncture, and you shouldn’t have to justify it to anyone. You’re the captain of the ship here, and you get to make choices involving your health.
  • If possible, have personal and specific stories/experiences to share quickly. Something like, “I have gone for two acupuncture sessions so far- I notice that my low back feels less achy and I am able to fall asleep without as much pain as I was experiencing before.” Or “My husband tried acupuncture for his tennis elbow, and I am going to try it to treat the arthritis in my knee since he had such good results.” This does two things: it provides an immediate example of a benefit or acupuncture, and it makes a more personal connection. You’d be hard pressed at this point to find someone who would say to you, “That’s stupid and your husband wasted his money. I don’t care that he feels better.”
  • Ask your acupuncturist for a quick way to explain what acupuncture does for your particular condition. The acupuncturist can then give you a brief idea of how they are treating your condition and how acupuncture can specifically benefit you (they can even give it you on a sticky note to take with you!). You can then share this information with your doctor.
  • If you feel like your doctor is going to be a hard sell, bring in an article or some examples of research that show the benefits of acupuncture. Feel free to ask your acupuncturist for this- that’s on us to keep up with the research and not something you should have to spend a lot of time exploring. However, if you have a quick article or study on hand, feel free to share it!
  • Ask your acupuncturist and doctor if they would like to discuss anything with each other. I welcome discussing my patients with their other healthcare providers…conversing and getting to know everyone involved in your care only benefits the patient. Ask your acupuncturist if you can share their contact information with your doctor- the doctor can then directly talk to the acupuncturist if they have any questions or concerns about your treatment or about TCM in general.

So hopefully you feel a little more prepared to have a conversation with your medical providers about adding acupuncture to your healthcare! I truly want patients to be able to be able to integrate acupuncture and TCM into their medical care- there’s no reason why patients can’t have their regular doctors and see me for acupuncture as well. Indeed, the needs of a patient are best served by both parties working together on behalf of the patient.

I hope this was helpful, and please share any experiences you’ve had with these types of conversations. And as always, please feel free to share with anyone you think might benefit from this article. Until next time, be well!