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Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that has been used for thousands of years. It may be used as a type of alternative or complementary medicine to help people with a variety of conditions. There is some evidence to suggest that it may help with depression.
The two most effective treatments for depression are currently antidepressants and talk therapy. However, these options don’t work for everyone with depression. They can also take some time to start working.
Some people turn to acupuncture to see if it provides quick relief. Others use acupuncture on an ongoing basis as part of their treatment plan for depression.
Acupuncture is a therapy used in traditional Chinese medicine. During the treatment, fine needles are punctured lightly into specific areas of the skin.
The points which the needles are inserted into are called acupuncture points. These are particular points in the body that are linked to other areas by meridian lines. Acupuncture practitioners believe that the life energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”), flows along meridian lines.
They believe that illnesses occur due to a lack of proper energy flow and that they can resolve diseases by addressing disruptions in the flow of qi.
Modern science has never been able to detect meridian lines, and there is no concrete evidence of their existence. This leads some people to label acupuncture as a “sham” medical treatment. Still, many people have reported success in using acupuncture to treat or relieve various health problems. Because of this, researchers have tried identifying other explanations as to how acupuncture may work.
For example, some experts have suggested that nerve endings just under the skin, where the needles are inserted, could play a role. This may offer a biological explanation for why acupuncture is helpful for some people.
The actual mechanism of acupuncture remains contested, and no one is really sure how it works. All we know is that, in some cases, it does have a beneficial effect on various disease states. Since it's a relatively safe treatment, some people decide to give it a try.
There is a long list of potential health problems that acupuncture aims to relieve. In the US, it's most commonly used for health conditions that cause pain or discomfort, such as neck, back, or joint pain.
Some conditions that acupuncture is used for include the following:
Osteoarthritis (“wear and tear” joint problems)
Headaches, including migraines
Myofascial pain syndrome (a chronic pain disorder related to skeletal muscles)
Sciatica (pain that travels along the sciatic nerve in the back)
Chronic pelvic pain
Irritable bowel syndrome
The conditions mentioned above have been studied in relation to acupuncture. Unfortunately, many studies have found that acupuncture was either less effective or no more effective than the standard treatment that doctors give. However, in some cases, it was more effective than no treatment.¹
Other potential uses for acupuncture include:
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Relief for menopause symptoms
These potential uses have very limited evidence. Therefore, acupuncture should not replace any treatments you are currently on for those health conditions.
If you’d like to consider using acupuncture alongside your other treatments, this is a safe option that you can try to see if it benefits you. Make sure you discuss with your doctor all complementary and alternative medicine treatments that you’re using or considering, including acupuncture.
At this stage, scientists have not been able to confirm how acupuncture works. Although scientists are constantly carrying out more research, the truth is that right now, they can only offer educated speculation as to how acupuncture may relieve symptoms.
There is one theory that suggests that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system. Since the nervous system extends throughout the body, it's possible that stimulating specific nerves with an acupuncture needle could have a remote effect, causing more distant areas to respond to the treatment. However, there is currently not enough evidence to support this claim.
Another theory about how acupuncture works involve connective tissue. This type of tissue is found throughout the body, and its role is to support other tissues and organs. It's been suggested that acupuncture needles could stimulate connective tissue. One study found some evidence to support this claim, as the meridians used in acupuncture correspond to anatomical connective tissue structures in the body. However, further research is still required to support this claim.²
Lastly, another theory about acupuncture is that it induces a placebo effect. A placebo is a treatment or therapy that has no biological effect, but the patient feels better after receiving the treatment because they believe in it. In other words, the placebo effect is an example of the power of the mind over the body.
Placebo treatments can have significant benefits for many conditions, even though they’re biologically inactive. Because of this, they are regularly used as a comparison in clinical trials when testing the effectiveness of a new treatment.
This lets researchers discover how much of the effect of the new treatment is due to the placebo effect. Although they can be effective, doctors cannot prescribe placebo treatments to their patients, as these treatments have no biological effect.
While placebo treatments may sound fake or misleading, some placebos are highly effective for certain conditions. Many patients don’t care if their treatment is a placebo as long as it’s working. For many people, if a treatment can relieve symptoms like pain or depression, then it’s not important whether that treatment worked through the placebo effect or in another way. What’s important is that they benefited from using the treatment.
One 2020 study found that acupuncture is likely to have a significant placebo effect. In fact, treatments like acupuncture are believed to be more effective at causing a placebo effect than other types of medical treatments (such as taking pills). But it's important to realize that more research is required, especially since there are conflicting theories about how acupuncture works.³
Acupuncture points are the places where needles are inserted into the skin. These are very specific points that you might see labeled on a diagram of the body. Between these points on the chart are lines that connect each point. Charts of acupuncture points are commonly found on the walls of acupuncture offices.
As mentioned earlier, the lines that connect acupuncture points are called meridian lines (or simply meridians). Acupuncture points are not chosen at random, and there is a specific reason why a therapist will target certain points. The points where the needles are inserted are typically chosen based on the health problem that the practitioner is trying to resolve.
Acupuncture can be used alongside any medication that you are taking. It doesn’t have any known dangerous interactions with any medications. This makes acupuncture ideal as a complementary therapy (another treatment used alongside a primary treatment such as medication). It’s still a good idea to discuss your acupuncture treatment with your doctor so that they’re aware of everything that you’re doing.
The purpose of complementary therapy is to provide a boost to the primary treatment. For example, acupuncture might offer quick and temporary relief while you wait for the primary treatment to work effectively.
However, it's important to note that many studies for several different health problems discovered that acupuncture is typically less effective than other treatments. Therefore, it’s not recommended that you replace any treatments that a doctor prescribes with acupuncture.
Doing so could cause your health to get worse and could even be dangerous. You can safely use acupuncture alongside other treatments but don’t use it instead of other treatments.
If you’re seeking to treat a mental health issue (such as depression), you can also use acupuncture alongside psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. However, acupuncture should not replace psychotherapy either. Again, acupuncture appears to work best when used as a complementary treatment rather than as a treatment on its own.
Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness. Anyone who has depression will know that it's not just a regular “bad day.” Instead, the symptoms can persist for a long time and are often challenging to overcome.
The general symptoms of depression are:
Feeling sad and empty
No longer enjoying activities that you enjoyed in the past
Loss of appetite, or eating too much
Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
Feeling anxious or irritable
Feelings of guilt
Unexplained aches, pains, headaches, or cramps
Thoughts about death or suicide
There are several different types of depression, but these symptoms are generally common in all of them.
If you have depression, you should not feel embarrassed or hesitate to ask for help. Depression is a very common issue that affects more than 19 million teens and adults in the United States.
There is more awareness about depression today than there has ever been. Because of this, doctors and other health practitioners are used to seeing people with depression and are well-prepared to treat it. There’s no reason to feel bad about asking for help.
If you are interested in complementary methods, like acupuncture, then it would be worthwhile to discuss this option with them. Healthcare professionals generally don’t resist the idea of complementary medicine — as long as the options you’re choosing are safe and won’t interact negatively with any conventional treatments that you’re also using.
Each practitioner may have different specific methods for treating depression. Therefore, asking what the treatment will be like before you book an appointment might be helpful. For example, you could ask them to show you which acupuncture points they will use on a chart or diagram or at least tell you the general areas where they plan to insert the needles.
It will help to clarify which points will be used, as some areas can be sensitive or uncomfortable. For instance, one type of acupuncture, known as auricular acupuncture, involves acupuncture being performed on the ear. This area of the body can be quite sensitive for some people, who may prefer to avoid it.
Different acupuncture professionals may have their own specialized methods for treating depression. There’s no standardized way to treat depression using acupuncture. Make sure that you choose a licensed and reputable practitioner. If there are any particular areas of the body that you’d prefer they avoid treating, you can simply let them know.
Compared to standard care (with medications or psychotherapy) or no treatment, acupuncture may result in a moderate reduction in the severity of depression, according to a 2018 review of 64 studies. However, because most of the studies were of low or very low quality, these findings should be interpreted cautiously.
A review of 29 studies conducted in 2019 claims that acupuncture was found to have a clinically significant effect in reducing the severity of depression when compared to usual care alone. Although, some of these studies had small sample sizes, and scientists don’t feel confident that they can rely on the results of these studies. But it appears that acupuncture could work for depression to some degree.⁴
Further research is required, and experts will continue to look into the mechanism of acupuncture. In the future, additional evidence could come to light. For now, what we can say is that acupuncture may provide additional relief from the symptoms of depression in some people when combined with standard treatment.
There is not enough clear evidence that suggests acupuncture can work for depression, and more research is required.
However, some trials have shown success in combining acupuncture with another form of treatment, such as medication or therapy. It may not work for everyone who tries it, but it’s also not dangerous, so there’s generally no harm in trying it if you’re interested.
One potential benefit of treating depression with acupuncture is that it gives patients more treatment options. That is, they can combine a standard treatment with acupuncture, hoping that it will increase its effectiveness.
Another benefit is that it's a relatively safe treatment. While there are some side effects, these are minimal, and severe side effects are rare.
Another bonus, in terms of its safety, is that there are no drug interactions. Because it’s an external therapy, acupuncture will not interact with any medications that you may be taking, including antidepressants.
Lastly, acupuncture may be very convenient for many patients to access. That's because you do not need a referral from your doctor for the treatment — although you may find it helpful to ask your doctor to recommend a particular practitioner.
Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear how long acupuncture takes to work when treating depression. Experts have suggested that there needs to be a deeper analysis of how people with varying types of depression respond to acupuncture and how quickly.
The timeline of the treatment is likely different for different people. For instance, people with more severe depression may find that acupuncture takes longer to work.
It's also been suggested that patients with ongoing depression may require frequent acupuncture. Researchers have pointed out that a more significant benefit appears to be linked to a higher frequency and duration of acupuncture treatments, meaning that you have treatments more often and over a longer period of time.
So, if you're hoping that acupuncture may provide instant relief, it’s possible that this will happen. However, you are more likely to notice greater effects after having multiple treatments. Depending on how far apart your treatments are, acupuncture could take several weeks before the full results are seen.
Before making any decisions on managing your depression, it would be best to speak to your doctor first. If you have a mild case of depression, it may be possible to try acupuncture as your sole means of treatment. However, you should still check in with your doctor first, so they can monitor your situation and intervene with another treatment if necessary.
If your depression is severe, acupuncture alone will almost certainly not have the required effects. You could still use acupuncture as an adjunct therapy, but it shouldn’t fully replace the primary treatment.
Ultimately, it is your choice how you manage or treat your depression. However, keeping an open mind to other treatments, such as antidepressants or talk therapy, is good. That's because these treatments are generally considered to be the most effective, and you might find some success with them.
If you are unsure which treatment is best for you, mention this to your doctor. They can discuss your options with you and answer any questions that you may have.
It's unclear whether acupuncture will relieve depression itself or just its associated symptoms. That's because acupuncture will have varying effects for each individual. We don’t know the exact effects that acupuncture may have on the brain.
Additionally, there's no way of predicting whether acupuncture will work for someone or how effective it will be. The only way to find out if it will work is to try it.
The predominant side effect of acupuncture is pain. Some people report no pain when acupuncture needles are inserted, as these needles are very small. However, others are highly sensitive to the pain.
Before you try acupuncture, it’s best to consider how you would respond to the treatment. Acupuncture could be extremely challenging for those who fear needles and might not be the best choice.
Common side effects of acupuncture are:
Fainting during the treatment (most likely due to fear of needles or pain)
Bruising or bleeding where the needles punctured the skin
These side effects are fairly common and are typically linked to pain from the needles. A phobia of needles could potentially make these side effects worse.
Serious and rare complications include:
Pneumothorax (a collapsed lung from a needle that is inserted too deep)
Spinal cord injury (from a needle being inserted too deep)
Hepatitis B (a contagious virus that causes liver disease)
Septicemia (blood poisoning from bacteria)
Punctured organs from the acupuncture needles going in too deep
Argyria (a rare skin condition that can develop if your body accumulates silver over time)
There is also a risk that the needles may break or become embedded too deep into the skin. There may be severe consequences, depending on where this occurs in the body.
It’s important to seek out a licensed acupuncture professional for your treatments. While doing so will significantly reduce the risk of serious side effects, there is still some chance that they could occur, even when you visit a licensed professional. However, the risk of serious side effects from acupuncture is tiny. It is actually smaller than the risks posed by many commonly prescribed medications.
Acupuncture is often regarded as an alternative medicine. However, it's best referred to as complementary medicine.
Alternative medicines are treatments that are used to replace standard treatments or therapies. In contrast, complementary medicines are used in combination with standard treatments.
Acupuncture may be either an alternative or complementary medicine. It comes down to whether a patient decides to use it with other treatments or on its own.
Other types of therapies that can be used as complementary or alternative medicines include:
Traditional healing practices
Ultimately, it's your choice whether to use acupuncture alone or with other treatments. However, to get the best possible results, it is better to use it as a complementary therapy. That's because, when it comes to treating depression, the effects of acupuncture are varied and unpredictable.
When it's used in combination with other treatments, such as antidepressants or talk therapy, there is a greater chance that you will notice some beneficial effects.
Whether those effects are due to acupuncture or the standard treatment, it will be hard to know for sure. But the results you notice will most likely be due to the standard treatment since this will have been proven to be effective for depression.
Nevertheless, it’s true that there are no guarantees that the standard treatments for depression will work for you. For example, antidepressant medications don’t work well for everyone. Sometimes, a patient may need to try more than one antidepressant before reaching the desired results.
Overall, the take-home message is that acupuncture works better as a complementary therapy than an alternative one. If you are still unsure which treatment options are best for you, you can discuss this in further detail with your doctor.
Acupuncture is a popular alternative medicine used by people with various health problems for quick or ongoing relief. While many people claim that acupuncture could help treat depression, the current evidence for this is minimal, although some people find that it does work for them.
If you want to try acupuncture, it’s considered very safe, although it may not be very effective. Additionally, if you are on other treatments, you should not replace them with acupuncture without consulting your doctor first.
It’s generally better to use acupuncture alongside the treatment recommended by your doctor rather than as a replacement. That way, you can use a combination of therapies to target depression, giving the best chance of good results.
Everyone responds to acupuncture differently, and there is no way of knowing whether it will work until you try it. There is limited evidence as to whether it can improve depression. Nonetheless, if you try it and discover that it works for you, there's no harm in using this therapy alongside other treatments recommended by your doctor.
There is no exact guideline on how often you will need acupuncture for depression. This will vary from person to person.
Each practitioner may use various points for depression. You will need to discuss this with them when making an appointment. You may also find it helpful to refer to a chart of acupuncture points and ask the practitioner why they believe targeting a particular area would be successful for depression.
Acupuncture: What you need to know | National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
The placebo effect (2008)
Complementary and alternative medicine | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention