doctor inserting acupuncture needle in man's back

Does Acupuncture Help Depression?

Alternative medicine

If you’re struggling with depression, you may be looking for alternative treatment options beyond medication and therapy. Acupuncture is a natural and holistic approach that has been used for centuries to treat a variety of health conditions, but you may be wondering does acupuncture help depression too.

In this article, we’ll explore the connection between acupuncture and depression, the benefits it can provide, what to expect during an acupuncture session, and the limitations of using acupuncture as a depression treatment.

What is the connection between acupuncture and depression?

Acupuncture is an ancient form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that involves inserting thin, sterilized needles into specific points on the body to promote healing and balance.

In TCM, emotional and physical health are interconnected, and acupuncture is used to balance the body’s Qi (pronounced “chee”) or life force energy. When Qi is blocked or imbalanced, it can lead to physical and emotional symptoms, including depression. Acupuncture is believed to help restore the balance of Qi in the body, which can in turn help alleviate depression symptoms.

In TCM, depression is thought to be caused by an imbalance or blockage of Qi in certain organs or meridians (energy pathways) in the body. Acupuncture can help regulate the flow of Qi in these areas and stimulate the release of hormones such as endorphins and serotonin, which can improve mood and reduce stress.

From a Western medicine perspective, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system, releasing natural painkillers and regulating the body’s hormone levels. This can help reduce inflammation and improve neural activity in the brain, which can have a positive effect on mood and stress levels.

What does the research say about acupuncture’s efficacy?

Acupuncture has demonstrated the potential for treating depression in multiple studies.

According to a comprehensive Cochrane review that evaluated 64 acupuncture studies involving over 7,100 participants, acupuncture has demonstrated moderate effectiveness in reducing depression severity compared to traditional depression treatments or no treatment at all.

Similarly, a systematic review that examined 29 studies, published in August 2019 in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, concluded that acupuncture is a valid supplement to standard depression treatments.

However, current research has limitations. One significant limitation is that these studies do not address how acupuncture compares to conventional therapies, such as psychotherapy or medication. Additionally, the Cochrane review did not have medium- or long-term follow-up, making it uncertain how acupuncture affects depression symptoms over an extended period. Moreover, the studies did not thoroughly assess the side effects of acupuncture, which raised concerns about whether the procedure may negatively impact individuals with depression.

A point to note, as well, is that most of these studies were carried out in China, where acupuncture is more commonly used than in other countries. Therefore the applicability of these findings in other countries is unclear.

Notably, most of the studies also did not follow up to determine whether the benefits of acupuncture were long-lasting.

What are the benefits of using acupuncture to treat depression?

While antidepressant medication can be effective for some people, it is not always well-tolerated and can come with a range of side effects. Acupuncture, on the other hand, is a natural and non-invasive treatment that generally has few side effects.

Many people report a significant decrease in depressive symptoms after acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture can help regulate mood, reduce anxiety and stress, and improve sleep quality.

Acupuncture has been shown to have a positive effect on sleep quality, which can be especially beneficial for people with depression. In addition to improving sleep, acupuncture can also promote an overall sense of well-being and relaxation.

Unlike prescription medications, which can cause a range of negative side effects, acupuncture is generally safe and well-tolerated. Any side effects experienced are typically mild and temporary.

What can you expect when you have acupuncture?

Before your first acupuncture session, you’ll typically have an initial consultation with your acupuncturist. During this consultation, your acupuncturist will ask about your medical history, lifestyle, and any symptoms you’re experiencing. This information will help them determine the best course of treatment for you.

During an acupuncture session, your acupuncturist will use thin, sterile needles to gently penetrate the skin at specific points on your body. You may feel a slight pinch or tingling sensation when the needle is inserted, but acupuncture is generally not painful.

The length and frequency of your acupuncture sessions will depend on your individual needs and condition. Generally, acupuncture sessions last for 30 to 60 minutes and are repeated once or twice a week for several weeks.

Some people may experience mild side effects after acupuncture treatment, such as bruising, soreness, or fatigue. However, these side effects are usually temporary and subsist within a day or two.

Is acupuncture right for you?

Acupuncture may not be a suitable treatment for severe or life-threatening depression. In such cases, it is important to seek professional medical attention and consider other forms of treatment.

Although acupuncture has been shown to be effective for many people with depression, it may not work for everyone. It is important to be open-minded and patient when trying alternative treatments.

While acupuncture can be an effective alternative treatment for depression, it should not be used as a substitute for other forms of treatment, such as medication or therapy. A holistic approach that encompasses multiple forms of treatment may provide the best long-term outcome.

The bottom line

Acupuncture is a natural and non-invasive treatment option that can be beneficial for people with depression. It offers a range of benefits, including a decrease in depressive symptoms, improved sleep and overall well-being, and a lack of negative side effects. However, it may not work for everyone and is not a substitute for other treatments.

If you are considering acupuncture as a depression treatment, it is important to speak with a qualified acupuncturist or healthcare professional to determine if it is the right option for you.

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata

Annie Ingalls
Annie Ingalls

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