Does Acupuncture Help With Depression? Experts Weigh In


Acupuncture originated from China thousands of years ago, and is known to be a complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapy, which involves embedding very thin needles into the skin at specific points throughout the body in order to stimulate the central nervous system.

Experts from John Hopkins medicine share that acupuncture works by triggering the release of chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain, in order to activate the body’s natural healing processes. As a result, they booster a person’s general physical and emotional well-being.

Although it’s considered an alternative treatment, acupuncture is one of the most widely used CAM treatments throughout the world. In fact, the United States has grown in acupuncture popularity, more so over the past few decades. A scientific review published in the Global Advances in Health and Medicine share that over 10 million acupuncture treatments have been administered annually within the US.

As per Mayo Clinic, the most common use for acupuncture is pain relief. But researchers are also looking into whether it can also help treat other health conditions like depression. According to the National Institute of Mental health, depression affects at least 21 million adults within the United States alone.

Why People With Depression Might Enjoy Acupuncture

According to research published in March 2018 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, more often than not, people dealing with depression tend to consider doing complimentary therapies such as acupuncture. One reason for this, as stated in an analysis study in Frontiers in Psychology from October 2021, acupuncture is linked to less side effects than the normal antidepressant medications.

Meanwhile, according to psychiatrist at LifeStance Health in Atlanta, Jasdeep Sandhu, MD, other reasons for doing acupuncture is that one central goal of acupuncture is ‘to restore balance in the body by increasing the flow of qi, or vital energy,’ since lack of energy and fatigue tend to be common symptoms of depression. Moreover, acupuncture is also popular in relieving pain, which may either cause depression or be caused by depression, as shared by experts from Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Sandhu shares, “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.”

Doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, Nell Smircina, who happens to be the director of development for the American Acupuncture Council, says that acupuncture also focuses on regulating hormonal imbalances while increasing levels of ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. The American Psychiatric Association also says that at times, it’s the differences in the brain chemicals that can be possible causes for depression.

However, while there are only a limited number of studies that suggest how acupuncture may possibly decrease the symptoms of depression, more research is still required before it is considered a dependable CAM treatment for depression. In addition, even though acupuncture may help some people that suffer from depression feel better, it’s still unlikely that it can become a “one-stop solution.”

Dr. Sandhu also shares that managing depression can be very complicated, and the need for a multipronged treatment approach is probably necessary. This means that it may still incorporates traditional, well-studied treatments such as psychotherapy – such as talk therapy – as well as antidepressant medications.

What Are the Potential Benefits Shown By Studies For Treating Depression With Acupuncture?

In a number of studies, acupuncture has shown potential for helping depression. In fact, in one of the biggest reviews published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, they assessed 64 studies on acupuncture for depression which had over 7,100 participants. The analysis found that it is moderately effective in lessening the severity of depression as compared to the standard treatments for depression, or with no treatment at all.

Published in the August 2019 Journal of Clinical Medicine, another systemic review of 29 studies, they found that from the almost 2,300 participants, acupuncture was a feasible addition to the standard forms of depression treatments.

One main issue was that the studies that were done actually had a number of limitations. One of the most important ones is that it didn’t make it clear how acupuncture compares to psychotherapy or medication – both of which are standard depression treatments.

Moreover, the studies in the Cochrane review also lacked medium and long-term follow-ups, which meant that it was also impossible to know how acupuncture works to help depressive symptoms in the long run. Also, most of the studies didn’t account for any of the side effects of acupuncture. This means that if there were risks of performing acupuncture in people with depression, they aren’t actually known.

In addition, the review in the published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, the researchers also shared that in 22 of the 27 included studies, they were performed in China where acupuncture is practiced much more often than in other countries. This means that they don’t know if these findings are applicable to those living outside of China. There were also no follow-up studies to see whether there were long-term benefits either.

Is Acupuncture Okay to Use as a Sole Treatment to Manage Depression?

Dr. Smircina claims that the answer to that is no. Although acupuncture can make you feel better, it’s not a replacement for the standard types of depression treatments.

She explains, “You can experience the greatest benefits of acupuncture while seeing a therapist, psychiatrist, or other medical professional.”

She also says that “You don’t have to do an either-or approach.” Rather, if you want to try acupuncture, you may do it alongside talk therapy, medication, or other forms of well-researched treatment options.

Dr. Sandhu also agrees with this. She recommends telling your acupuncturist what you’re hoping to gain from the sessions, like if the goal is relief from pain, low mood, or depression-related fatigue.

Another thing to consider is how frequent you should get acupuncture treatments, which really vary from person to person. While some people prefer to do two or three session a week, others feel that once a week is sufficient, especially when it comes to maintenance treatment from stress relief or general pain.

Of course before you begin any acupuncture treatments, you should speak with your doctor to make sure that you are a viable patient. Mayo Clinic experts share that it is not safe for those suffering from bleeding disorders, pregnant women, or those with pacemakers. Possible side effects tend to be very mild, but can include soreness, mild bruising, and even bleeding in the areas where the needles are placed.

Is It Worth Trying?

When it comes to depression, is acupuncture worth trying? The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health explains that there’s not enough evidence to say if acupuncture truly relieves symptoms of depression. But, it is believed to be safe when it is done properly.

Dr. Smircina says, “Thankfully, acupuncture is an incredibly safe modality, and has very few — and rare — potential side effects.”

Dr. Sandhu also agrees with this statement, saying that it is generally safe for as long as you work with a trained professional. She says, “You should look for a licensed and board-certified practitioner. 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.”

Once more, it’s imperative to speak with your doctor before trying acupuncture. Dr. Smircina even encourages consultation between your doctor and your acupuncturist, saying, “Your acupuncturist and therapist or psychiatrist should be communicating and keeping your goals in mind.”

And on a last note, consider how much it will cost as not all health insurance companies cover such treatments as acupuncture.