Acupuncture is what’s known as a complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapy that involves inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body to stimulate the central nervous system.
According to experts at John Hopkins Medicine, acupuncture triggers the release of chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain that activate the body’s natural healing processes, which in turn promote general physical and emotional well-being.
The practice originated in China thousands of years ago and is one of the most widely used CAM interventions worldwide. In the United States, acupuncture’s popularity has surged over the past several decades, with more than 10 million acupuncture treatments administered annually, according to a scientific review published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine.
Pain relief is the most common use for acupuncture, per the Mayo Clinic. However, researchers are also studying whether it can help treat other health conditions such as depression, which affects 21 million adults in the United States, states the National Institute of Mental Health.
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Why Acupuncture Might Appeal to People With Depression
Many people with depression consider complementary therapies like acupuncture, per research published in March 2018 in the?Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. One reason, according to an analysis published in October 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology, is that acupuncture is associated with fewer side effects than antidepressant medications.
Other reasons? A central goal of acupuncture is to restore balance in the body by increasing the flow of qi, or vital energy, and fatigue and lack of energy are common symptoms of depression, explains Jasdeep Sandhu, MD, a psychiatrist at LifeStance Health in Atlanta. In addition, acupuncture is widely used to relieve pain, which by itself can cause depression or be caused by depression, Mayo Clinic experts note.
“People with depression often express these sentiments [of pain and lack of energy], and acupuncture has a unique way of working with the energy and channels, or meridians, in our body to restore balance,” Dr. Sandhu says.
Acupuncture also aims to regulate hormonal imbalances and increase levels of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, says Nell Smircina, a doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine who serves as president of the California State Oriental Medical Association and director of development for the American Acupuncture Council. According to the American Psychiatric Association, differences in brain chemicals like these are a potential cause of depression.
Still, although a limited number of studies suggest that acupuncture may decrease symptoms of depression, more research is needed before it can be considered a reliable CAM treatment for the mood disorder. What’s more, even if acupuncture helps some people with depression feel better, it’s unlikely that it will ever be a one-stop solution.
Managing depression is complicated and requires a multipronged treatment approach, explains Sandhu, one that incorporates standard, well-studied treatments like psychotherapy (aka talk therapy) and antidepressant medications.
What Potential Benefits Do Studies Show for Treating Depression With Acupuncture?
Acupuncture has shown promise for depression in numerous studies. One of the largest, the review published in the?Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, assessed 64 studies of acupuncture for depression encompassing more than 7,100 participants. It found acupuncture to be moderately effective in reducing the severity of depression compared with standard depression treatments or no treatment at all.
Another systematic review of 29 studies, published in August 2019 in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, showed that among nearly 2,300 total participants, acupuncture was a viable addition to standard depression treatments
The problem? Studies performed so far have several limitations, one of the most important being that they don’t make clear how acupuncture stacks up against psychotherapy or medication, which are standard treatments for depression.
In addition, the studies in the Cochrane review lacked medium- and long-term follow-up, so it’s impossible to know how acupuncture affects depressive symptoms in the long term. Most of the studies also didn’t account for side effects of acupuncture. This means that any risks of performing acupuncture among people with depression aren’t yet known.
What’s more, in the review published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, researchers noted that 22 of the 27 included studies were performed in China, where acupuncture tends to be administered more frequently than in other countries. Therefore, it isn’t certain how applicable these findings are to people living in other countries. And again, most of these studies didn’t include follow-up to determine whether any benefits were long-lasting.
Is It Okay to Rely Solely on Acupuncture to Manage Depression?
In a word, no. Although acupuncture may help you feel better, it’s not a replacement for standard depression treatments, Dr. Smircina cautions.
“You can experience the greatest benefits of acupuncture while seeing a therapist, psychiatrist, or other medical professional,” she says.
If you want to try acupuncture, do it in tandem with talk therapy, medication, or other well-researched treatment options. “You don't have to do an either-or approach,” Smircina says.
Sandhu agrees. She also recommends telling the acupuncturist exactly what you’re looking to gain from sessions, such as relief from pain, low mood, or depression-related fatigue.
The frequency of acupuncture treatments varies from person to person. Some people start with two or three sessions per week, says Smircina. Others find that once a week is enough, especially for maintenance treatment or general pain or stress relief.
Before trying acupuncture, consult your medical doctor to be sure it’s safe for you. According to the?Mayo Clinic, acupuncture may not be safe for people with some conditions:
- People with bleeding disorders
- People with pacemakers
- Pregnant people
The potential side effects of acupuncture are often minor and may include soreness, as well as mild bruising or bleeding where needles were placed.
The Bottom Line: Is Acupuncture Worth Trying for Depression?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says there’s not enough evidence to be sure acupuncture relieves depressive symptoms. In general, however, acupuncture is believed to be safe when performed properly.
“Thankfully, acupuncture is an incredibly safe modality, and has very few — and rare — potential side effects,” says Smircina.
Sandhu agrees, saying that acupuncture is generally safe as long as you choose to work with a trained professional. “You should look for a licensed and board-certified practitioner,” she notes. “The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the professional licensing body for Chinese medicine in the United States, offers a directory of licensed practitioners.”
And again, it’s important to talk to your doctor before trying acupuncture. In fact, Smircina encourages facilitating communication between your doctor and your acupuncturist. “Your acupuncturist and therapist or psychiatrist should be communicating and keeping your goals in mind,” she says.
Finally, bear in mind that it can be expensive. Before scheduling an appointment, check with your health insurance company to see if acupuncture is covered.