Does acupuncture help with depression

Acupuncture for Depression: Does It Work?

Written by WebMD Editorial Contributors

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 25, 2021

In this Article

  • What is Acupuncture?
  • What is Depression?
  • Acupuncture and Depression
  • Side Effects of Acupuncture
  • What to Look for in a Practitioner

For about 3,000 years, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have used acupuncture to treat various medical conditions. In recent decades, acupuncture has become more popular in the United States, with more than 10 million acupuncture treatments given each year.

Some people are even turning to acupuncture to treat their mental health issues, including depression. For those who have not improved with regular treatment methods, acupuncture may be a useful alternative treatment. Here is what you need to know about using acupuncture for depression.

What is Acupuncture?

In acupuncture, thin steel needles, which are the width of a human hair, are inserted into specific parts of your body. Where the needles are inserted depends on the health issue being treated. Some health issues treated using acupuncture include: 

  • Arthritis
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Chronic pain
  • Acute pain such as muscle pain, back pain, knee pain
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Sports injuries
  • Allergies.

In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that the body has a flow of energy or qi that regulates your health. If the flow is disrupted, you’ll feel ill. Applying needles to specific acupuncture points, called meridians, rebalances your energy flow and improves your health. 

What is Depression?

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is an illness that involves a constant feeling of sadness and a loss of interest or pleasure. There may also be several other symptoms:

  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Changes to appetite and weight
  • Irritability and frustration, even over small matters
  • Trouble concentrating, making decisions, remembering things
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness.

Depression is often treated with medication, talk therapy, or both. However, between 19% to 34% of those with depression don’t improve with medication or therapy. Many people (15% to 50%) will also have depression again despite ongoing treatment. 

Some people with depression are now giving alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, a try. In the United Kingdom, psychological distress, which includes depression, was the second most common reason why people tried acupuncture. 

Acupuncture and Depression

There have been few research studies about acupuncture for depression, so it’s difficult to accurately measure its treatment benefits. Something that limits research into acupuncture as a treatment method is that it is hard to create a control condition. Practitioners and patients know if they are doing or having the treatment.

Despite these limitations, there is some research supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for depression and related symptoms.  

Decrease in severity of depression. In an 8-week acupuncture study of 151 men and women, researchers found that depressive symptoms improved significantly. Those who received acupuncture, whether targeted or nonspecific, improved more than those who did not. 

In another study, acupuncture was found to have similar effects compared to the antidepressant drug fluoxetine in those with post-stroke depression. 

Reduction in the number of migraines. Some people have both depression and migraines. Researchers found that those who have migraines or other severe headaches are three times more likely to have depression, compared to those who don’t have headaches. 

A 24-week study found that people who received acupuncture treatments had less frequent migraines than those who did not.

Reduction in depressive symptoms during pregnancy. Up to 14% of pregnant women may have depression. For some women, pregnancy is the cause of their depression. Depression during pregnancy can have risks for both mother and baby.

Some pregnant women may be worried about taking antidepressants and seek alternative treatments for their depression. Acupuncture may have an effect on depression during pregnancy. 

In a study, pregnant women with depression received depression-targeted acupuncture for 8 weeks. Another group of pregnant women received non-specific acupuncture, and a third group received prenatal massages. The women who received depression-specific acupuncture had a greater reduction in depressive symptoms compared to those who received the other treatments.

Side Effects of Acupuncture

Some common side effects of acupuncture include bruising, minor bleeding, or soreness in the places where needles were inserted. Rare side effects include dizziness, local internal bleeding, nerve damage, dermatitis, increased pain, and hepatitis B.

You may be at a higher risk for complications if you have certain medical issues. If you have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners, the likelihood of bleeding or bruising increases. 

If you have a pacemaker, infusion pump, or another electrical device, you might want to avoid electroacupuncture, which uses a device to generate electric stimulation. Electroacupuncture can interfere with your device. 

Some types of acupuncture are believed to induce labor. If you are pregnant, be careful about the types of acupuncture you receive. 

Be sure to discuss any alternative treatments you are trying with your doctor.

What to Look for in a Practitioner

The risks of acupuncture are generally low, but it is important to go to a certified practitioner. Certified acupuncturists will be trained in the proper techniques and reduce your risk of injury.

Your practitioner should use a new package of sterile needles at your appointment. They should also swab all puncture sites with alcohol before inserting any needles.

Most acupuncturists use disposable, single-use needles, so the risk of infection is very low. The US Food and Drug Administration requires that acupuncture needles be stainless steel, solid, sterile, and nontoxic.

If you don’t know where to start looking for an acupuncturist, you can ask your doctor for recommendations. You can also check with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for practitioners in your area.

Be sure to check if acupuncture is covered by your insurance or that you can cover the costs before you begin any acupuncture treatments. 

Acupuncture for Depression: Is It Worth Trying?

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.

6 Depression Symptoms You Shouldn't Ignore

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.

Acupuncture for the treatment of neurosis and depression

With neurotic disorders, Western medicine operates with pills - tranquilizers, antidepressants. But these are symptomatic remedies, but the problem can be eliminated in essence.

Tibetan doctors consider neuroses, depression, and other disorders of the nervous system and psyche to be the result of an imbalance in the regulating basis Wind (Rlung). And if the cause is known, then there are ways to eliminate it.

The usual cause of nervous disorders is the energy depletion of the body. This is due, firstly, to the innate characteristics of metabolism.

Most often, people of the constitutional type Wind suffer from neuroses and depression - impressionable, emotional, restless, mobile. They are not at all prone to excess weight, they are lean, tall or, on the contrary, miniature.

The metabolism of such people is very fast, so the energy does not have time to spend rationally and most of it is wasted - on emotional outbursts, violent and fruitless impulses, insomnia, constant anxiety.

The result is an exhaustion of the nervous system, or the basis of Wind. This base is of a cold nature, so its depletion is often accompanied by coldness of the hands, feet, and a sensation of chilliness.

No pills can restore the energy balance. Only proper nutrition, herbal medicine can increase the level of heat. For these methods to work optimally, it is necessary that the energy move freely in the body along the meridians.

But with neurosis of anxiety, fear or other disorders of the nervous system in the body, as a rule, there are muscle spasms, blood circulation is disturbed. If the normal circulation of energy is not restored, it is almost impossible to increase the level of body heat.

And then acupuncture comes to the rescue. With the help of acupuncture, the Tibet clinic doctor restores the normal movement of energy along the meridians of the body and puts the energy balance of the body in order.

Thus, acupuncture eliminates the cause of nervous disorders - energy depletion. No pills can help with this, but acupuncture sessions help.

The success of acupuncture in the treatment of neuroses, depression and other nervous diseases is so obvious that modern medicine tries to explain them scientifically. Her explanation consists of three points.

1. Acupuncture somehow stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin.

Indeed, the introduction of needles into bioactive points according to certain patterns stimulates the production of the "hormone of pleasure" - dopamine and the "hormone of happiness" - serotonin.

Serotonin is a hormone that is produced when exposed to sunlight. The lack of sun in the northern climate is one of the main causes of depression and suicidality.

An example is Finland. This country has one of the highest living standards, but also one of the highest suicide rates. The reason is the shortage of the sun, a small number of sunny days, that is, a purely climatic, and not an economic factor.

Russia is also among the country-record holders in the number of suicides, and the climate factor plays a significant role in this.

Acupuncture increases the production of serotonin and thus serves as a cure for depression. As for dopamine, it is not only a “hormone of pleasure”, but also a neurotransmitter.

The conductivity of the "white channels" - the nerves - depends on its concentration. The easier and faster the signals pass through the nerves, the lower the energy costs. Therefore, by facilitating the innervation of the body, acupuncture improves its energy.

2. Acupuncture somehow stimulates the production of endorphins.

Pain-relieving substances that are produced by our brain are similar in their action to morphine. They not only anesthetize, but also improve mood and therefore help with neurosis and depression no worse, but better than antidepressants.

3. Acupuncture relieves muscle spasms and pain.

The introduction of needles into bioactive points relieves muscle tension. Thanks to this, canned nervous stresses are released, mental, nervous tension is relieved.

Acupressure massage also gives a similar effect in the Tibet clinic, during sessions of which patients sometimes begin to cry because the drunken mental load is released and comes out. These are tears and the joy of relief.

Acupuncture in this sense gives less effect than acupressure, but it has an analgesic effect in pain syndromes, which serve as a factor in the development of neurosis, depression, and insomnia.

In general, according to the experience of the doctors of the Tibet clinic, acupuncture is a powerful tool for treating neurosis, depression and other nervous disorders.

In terms of its effectiveness, this method is significantly superior to medications, especially in the long term. After all, acupuncture eliminates not only the symptoms and mechanisms of development of nervous disorders. With its help, it is possible to eliminate the causes of imbalance in the Wind base, which is responsible for the psyche, brain function and nervous system.

With the help of acupuncture, the doctor of the Tibet clinic regulates the energy balance of the body, eliminating the cause of the depletion of the nervous system. At the same time, it acts simultaneously on the signs and causes of a neurotic disorder.

Acupuncture improves treatment of depression and chronic pain

Acupuncture improves treatment of depression and chronic pain symptom intensity.

In a report published in the Journal of the National Institutes of Health Research (NIHR), researchers showed that there is strong evidence that acupuncture is significantly superior to the placebo effect.

Professor Hugh McPherson conducted a study with a team of scientists from the UK and the US, collecting the results of 29 high quality clinical studies focused on patients treated with acupuncture and conventional methods.

In most of these studies, patients with chronic pain who were treated with acupuncture and standard medical care were compared with those who received only standard treatment in the form of NSAID medication and physical therapy. The study involved about 18,000 patients diagnosed with chronic pain localized in the neck, lower back, headache or knee pain.

The study showed that the addition of acupuncture treatment, compared with standard treatments, significantly reduced the number of episodes of headaches, and also reduced the intensity of pain in the neck and lower back. The study also showed that acupuncture reduced pain and joint function in osteoarthritis, leading to patients requiring fewer NSAIDs for pain relief.

The study also concluded that acupuncture is cost effective as it does not require expensive consumables.

Professor McPherson, from the University of York, said: "Recently there has been a significant increase in the number of physicians who use acupuncture in their practice. Nearly 4 million acupuncture treatments are performed in the UK per year, but there has been no reliable evidence of the effectiveness of this technique.

" Therefore, for many years the use of acupuncture has been a controversial issue. Our goal was to bring together data from high-quality clinical studies and provide a robust evidence base that will help reduce this uncertainty and enable physicians to use this non-pharmacological treatment in an informed manner.”

In addition, a new clinical study of the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of depression was conducted by a team of scientists compared with the effectiveness of treatment using drugs such as antidepressants.

The study included 755 depressed patients in the North of England. Researchers have shown that both acupuncture and psychotherapy significantly reduce the severity of depression and the effect of treatment lasts for 12 months.

Professor McPherson said: "The first step in the treatment of depression is usually the use of antidepressants, but these drugs do not work in half of the patients.

"In the largest study of its kind, we were able to provide a solid evidence base to show that not only did acupuncture and psychotherapy work, but they lasted for up to a year.

Learn more