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Acupuncture for Depression

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Updated May 01, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many people looking to treat depression turn to acupuncture, an ancient Chinese therapy that involves using needles to stimulate specific points on the body. Although scientists are still unclear on how acupuncture might help alleviate depression, it's been shown that it may help stimulate the release of certain mood-regulating brain chemicals (such as serotonin).

Is Acupuncture Effective for Depression?

The World Health Organization classifies depression as a condition for which acupuncture has been proven (through clinical trials) to be an effective treatment. Indeed, a research review published in 2008 sized up eight small trials (with a total of 477 patients) and concluded that acupuncture "could significantly reduce the severity of depression." On the other hand, a 2010 research review analyzed data from 30 trials (with a total of 2,812 patients) and found "insufficient evidence of a consistent beneficial effect from acupuncture" in treatment of depression. However, those trials included two studies showing that acupuncture may have an additive benefit when combined with medication (compared with the use of medication alone).

Other research suggests that acupuncture may be beneficial when combined with medication in the treatment of depression. For instance, a 2009 trial involving 80 patients with major depressive disorder found that combining a low dose of fluoxetine (an antidepressant) with acupuncture for six weeks was as effective as a standard dose of fluoxetine in treatment of depression. Those receiving acupuncture also showed better improvement in symptoms of anxiety and fluoxetine side effects.

Should You Use Acupuncture to Treat Depression?

While acupuncture may help improve mood and ease some depressive symptoms, it's important to work closely with a mental-health professional when treating depression. In most cases, it may be necessary to pursue standard treatments such as medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. When left untreated, depression can lead to a number of serious problems, such as alcohol abuse, heart disease, and suicide.

If you're currently undergoing any type of depression treatment, consult your doctor before beginning treatment with acupuncture (or any type of alternative medicine). If you're experiencing depressive symptoms (such as loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, sleep problems, a persistent feeling of sadness and/or worthlessness, and loss of energy), you should talk to your doctor about your symptoms and possible treatment options as soon as possible.

In addition to discussing acupuncture with your doctor, you may want to consider other mind-body approaches to depression treatment, such as yoga therapy and meditation.

Sources:

Smith CA, Hay PP, Macpherson H. "Acupuncture for depression." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 20;(1):CD004046.

Wang H, Qi H, Wang BS, Cui YY, Zhu L, Rong ZX, Chen HZ. "Is acupuncture beneficial in depression: a meta-analysis of 8 randomized controlled trials?" J Affect Disord. 2008 111(2-3):125-34.

World Health Organization. "Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials: 3. Diseases and disorders that can be treated with acupuncture". 2003.

Yoshimoto K, Fukuda F, Hori M, Kato B, Kato H, Hattori H, Tokuda N, Kuriyama K, Yano T, Yasuhara M. "Acupuncture stimulates the release of serotonin, but not dopamine, in the rat nucleus accumbens." Tohoku J Exp Med. 2006 208(4):321-6.

Zhang WJ, Yang XB, Zhong BL. "Combination of acupuncture and fluoxetine for depression: a randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial." J Altern Complement Med. 2009 15(8):837-44.

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