Acupuncture for depression: effectiveness and points


Acupuncture is a form of ancient Chinese medicine that can provide many health benefits. Research suggests that it can also help treat depression.

Acupuncture is a widely practiced form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) dating back to 100 BC

As a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), acupuncture has traditionally been used to treat a number of physical ailments.

In recent years, acupuncture has become a potential alternative treatment for mood disorders like depression.

According to TCM, a life force, or qi, circulates throughout the body to maintain harmony, balance, and overall health. A blockage of qi could create an imbalance of yin and yang energy and lead to various forms of illness.

According to TCM, the human body has over 2,000 acupuncture points, or acupuncture points. Each is connected by channels or meridians.

A licensed acupuncturist inserts thin metal needles into specific acupuncture points on the body to stimulate the flow of qi to increase blood flow to organs. When qi flows freely through the meridians, organs are “toned” to improve health and well-being.

Once widely regarded as a pseudoscience, acupuncture is increasingly accepted by Western medicine. In fact, it is the most studied form of TCM.

Just before the turn of the century, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognized the potential therapeutic benefits of acupuncture.

Recent studies suggest that acupuncture can treat health problems such as:

Do acupuncture needles hurt?

Acupuncture needles are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The process of inserting acupuncture needles into the skin is minimally invasive and usually painless.

According to TCM, many people experience a temporary feeling of dullness or pain when inserting needles, as stagnant or blocked Qi begins to release. The needles should only cause prolonged pain if they are inserted incorrectly.

Some acupuncturists may use manual, heated, or electrical stimulation, while others will leave the room while the needles are in place. Treatments can range from 30 to 60 minutes per session.

Common techniques

Some acupuncturists may use other forms of acupuncture during treatment. These include:

  • Auricular acupuncture. Colloquially sometimes referred to as “ear acupuncture,” needles are placed in specific points of the ear with this technique.
  • Electroacupuncture. For this technique, the needles are stimulated by an electric current.
  • Distal acupuncture. In this form of acupuncture, the needles are placed away from the affected painful areas.
  • Orthopedic acupuncture. Acupuncture is combined with myofascial massage or manipulation.

Many licensed acupuncturists are also trained herbalists and can recommend Chinese herbal formulas to their clients to supplement their treatment.

A growing body of research suggests that acupuncture may offer relief from symptoms associated with depression, but as a 2020 research review notes, rigorous large-scale studies are still needed.

Jon E. Walker, L.Ac, acupuncturist and licensed herbalist with Bull City Acupuncture in Durham, North Carolina, treats a number of conditions with acupuncture. He says comorbid anxiety and depressive disorder are a common complaint among people who visit his clinic.

To treat depression, acupuncturists like Walker target specific acupuncture points in the body to treat associated symptoms to release hormones that regulate mood and emotions.

While scientific research challenges the theory of qi stagnation, research from 2014 suggests that acupuncture releases endorphins and may help stimulate blood flow. An increase in endorphins can stimulate the mind and body, which may alleviate some symptoms of depression.

According to Walker, acupuncture can treat depression by regulating key components of the brain and central nervous system. These include:

  • Endogenous opioids and opioid receptors. These become deregulated in mood disorders such as depression.
  • Seahorse. This part of the brain can shrink in people with depression.
  • Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and neuroendocrine system. These are associated with the pathophysiology of depression, or how depression can affect bodily function.
  • Neuroinflammation. Inflammation can affect the HPA axis and the synthesis of serotonin.
  • Neurotransmitters and their metabolites. These can be disturbed by depression.

Walker explains that in his practice of acupuncture, people with mild to moderate depression may experience positive changes in 8-12 treatments over 4-6 weeks, but the duration and frequency of treatment may vary.

“It all depends on the [person], the severity of their symptoms and their response to treatment, ”he says. “Some [people] start to feel better right away, others take longer.

Acupuncture points

An acupuncturist chooses specific acupuncture points on the body to stimulate energy channels or meridians to treat depression based on their assessment of the client.

“Each person and their depression are unique and are best treated as such,” says Walker. “There are common models, but [individuals] are rarely textbooks.

Although treatment may vary, Walker says common acupuncture points associated with symptoms of depression include:

  • Stomach 36
  • Rate 6
  • Liver 3
  • Large intestine 4
  • Heart
  • Pericardium 6
  • Yintang
  • DU20
  • Si Shen Cong

Acupuncture needles can also be placed in the ear to stimulate the heart, liver, or lungs, including two key acupuncture points:

  • Shen Men: the “portal of the mind” to promote tranquility in the mind and access the mind and emotions
  • Zero point: The physiological center for balancing the brain, hormones and energy to bring the whole body into a state of balance

When combined with antidepressants, research shows that acupuncture can be effective. However, high quality evidence is often lacking.

A 2018 research review indicates that acupuncture combined with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be more effective than antidepressants alone for mild to moderate depression, but the studies were largely biased.

Additionally, a 2019 research review suggests that acupuncture, when given in appropriate doses and combined with antidepressants, may reduce symptoms associated with major depressive disorder.

The results suggest a reduction in drug side effects and an improvement in quality of life, but the results are also potentially biased.

Research suggests that acupuncture can be just as effective as psychotherapy in treating depression.

The results of a 2013 randomized controlled trial do not show a significant difference between acupuncture and counseling for the treatment of depression, indicating that the two interventions were beneficial at 3 and 12 months of follow-up compared to standard care. .

A 2014 study indicates that when combined with psychotherapy, acupuncture can be an effective form of treatment for depression. The results suggest that people were more actively involved in their treatment during the counseling process.

Of course, whether a person is to use acupuncture as the only treatment for their depression, or as a substitute or complement to a drug or therapy, it will depend on their situation, how they are responding to treatment, and what their doctor recommends. doctor or mental health professional. .

“Some [people] don’t respond well to medication, therapy or acupuncture, ”says Walker. “You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. “

While studies show that acupuncture can be effective in treating chronic pain, some researchers have argued that the improvements could be attributed to a placebo effect.

As the 2019 research points out, there may be minimal difference in the improvements in chronic pain from acupuncture compared to “sham acupuncture” (acupuncture is not performed correctly), suggesting that acupuncture may have a “mega-placebo effect”.

At the same time, a 2020 research review found that acupuncture treatment for insomnia in people with major depressive disorder was effective, but not because of a placebo effect.

On the contrary, the review noted that acupuncture significantly improved the quality of sleep in people with depression, compared to sham acupuncture.

Acupuncture is recognized as a safe alternative or complementary treatment for depression with few side effects. In general, acupuncture and drug interactions are not a problem.

The most common side effects include:

  • needle site pain
  • slight bruising or bleeding at the needle site
  • fatigue or dizziness after treatment

Acupuncture can be an effective therapeutic approach for treating depression when combined with medication, psychotherapy, or both.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, acupuncture may offer a potential alternative to antidepressant medication, but it is essential to always consult a healthcare practitioner first. Do not stop taking medication without their consent.

Acupuncture treatment can be expensive, but many clinics offer tapering or community rates. You can also check with your insurer, if you have one, to see if acupuncture treatments are covered.

When looking for an acupuncturist, make sure that they have obtained the appropriate license to practice.

“Acupuncture can be used as a safe adjunct to standard care,” says Walker. “The combination of medication, therapy, and acupuncture is likely to give the best results.”

However, keep in mind that it ultimately depends on what works best for you.


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