Important Things to Know about Acupuncture for Depression


Exploring How Effective Acupuncture is For Emotional Health

In recent years, acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medical practice, has gained popularity as a potential treatment for depression. This ancient practice of inserting thin needles into specific body points is aimed to restore and balance the flow of vital energy, known as the Qi. While mainly used for managing pain, acupuncture is increasingly being examined in treating mental health issues, including depression. It is known that it rebalances Qi energy, encourages emotional health, and potentially reduces some symptoms. However, although showing promising results, research is still inconclusive, and acupuncture is recommended only as a complementary therapy to standard treatments, and it is not their substitute.

Throughout this article, we will thoroughly explore the topic, examining relevant research, treatment plans, risks, and side effects, and much more to help you gain a full understanding of how effective acupuncture is in treating depression.

What is Depression?

Depression is a common and serious illness, potentially life-threatening, which is characterized by a depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, thus, negatively impacting your ability to function in everyday life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) study from 2020, about 8.4% (21 million) of adults in the US had at least one episode of depression in their life. Depression and mood disorders have skyrocketed and are also one of the leading causes of disability.


Depression is caused by several reasons, and risk factors include a combination of biochemical, genetic, environmental, and personality elements. Experiencing stressful life situations such as the death of a loved one, work pressures, abuse, bullying, can all set off depression. In some cases, it can even lead to suicidal thoughts.

About 12% of new mothers in US experience peripartum depression (formerly postpartum), caused by hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, lack of support, loss of identity, and many other reasons.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms depend on various factors, such as age, personality, life events, but there are some common signs to look out for:

  • Continually feeling hopeless and sad
  • Avoiding socializing
  • Overly anxious or worried
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Low self-esteem
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Insomnia
  • Eating disorder

By identifying the symptoms, first steps can be taken to overcome the issue and start the treatment. As depression is highly treatable, the condition can be improved.

Two common depression treatment options

The most common standard treatments include medication and psychotherapy. Research shows cognitive behavioral psychotherapy as very successful and effective, whether used alone or in combination with medication.

Psychotherapy helps a person identify, address, and change negative thinking patterns that cause depression. On the other hand, medication therapy relieves some of the symptoms, however, it is still important to see a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional.

Can Acupuncture Help With Depression: Insights from Eastern and Western Medicine

Western medicine treats disease symptoms, while Oriental medicine tries to find what the cause is. While a Western practitioner may prescribe a medication or therapy to treat depression, an acupuncturist will seek imbalances in the body which are causing the disease.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the mind and body are interacting as one. It is believed that what you feel in your mind has a physical impact on your body. Eastern medicine attributes acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating depression to its ability of rebalancing Qi, the vital energy.

According to oriental medicine, in most cases, depression is caused by Qi imbalance, blockage, or disturbed emotion flow. These imbalances and disruptions are addressed by inserting fine, thin needles along the body’s meridian pathways. Needle stimulation helps bring body’s energy back to balance, and ultimately encourages emotional health. It is also believed to boost the production of endorphins and serotonin (also known as “happy hormones”) which is considered to be one of the key benefits in treating depression.

Western Medicine

Although conventional medicine recognizes how efficient acupuncture is in pain management, there are mixed opinions on its application for mental health conditions, such as depression. Some studies show potential benefits in reducing the symptoms, even though the evidence is limited. Regardless, its role as a complementary treatment has been gaining more popularity recently. Continued research and clinical trials are necessary for a clearer understanding of acupuncture’s effectiveness within the framework of the Western medicine community.

What to Expect at a Typical Acupuncture Session

Before the treatment, no special preparation is needed. After your acupuncturist disinfects and inserts the needles, you will lie still in a peaceful setting, for about 30 – 60 minutes. The exact length of the session will depend on your condition. You can also expect ambient music or mood lighting.  The acupuncturist will check on you during the session, to make sure you are ok, and sometimes to slightly manipulate the needles.

How frequently the therapy is administered depends on your particular situation. Usually, you will need to see an acupuncturist once or twice a week. Treatments may become less frequent with signs of health improvement.

Do the needles hurt?

Acupuncture needles are extremely thin, hence the procedure of inserting them is usually not painful at all. You might experience a temporary dull sensation upon insertion, which reflects the Qi release, according to TCM. If the needles are inserted properly by a licensed practitioner, you will not feel any prolonged pain or discomfort.

Acupuncture Points for Depression

Acupoints targeted during the acupuncture session have a crucial role in treatments. These locations along the meridians of the body coordinate with the Qi, our body’s energy flow. Hundreds of acupoints are located on the body’s meridians. The exact ones to be treated will be determined based on the patient, the symptoms, and the main cause of depression. A well-trained acupuncturist will easily detect the correct points for stimulation.

When treating depression, several acupoints are typically targeted:

  • Yintang (EX-HN 3), located between the eyebrows, is believed to calm the mind and reduce stress.
  • Neiguan (Pericardium 6), situated on the inner forearm, helps ease anxiety and promotes emotional health.
  • Sanyinjiao (Spleen 6)
  • Shenmen (Heart 7)
  • Bai Hui (Governing Vessel 20)
  • He Gu (Large Intestine 4)
  • Si Shen Cong points
  • Tai Chong (Liver 3)

10 Potential Benefits of Acupuncture for Depression

Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice, has gained traction as an alternative treatment for depression and a range of mental health disorders. Here are just some of the benefits TCM offers when treating depression symptoms, compared to western medicine.

  1. Natural approach
  2. Reduces cortisol (stress hormone)
  3. Increases serotonin and endorphin levels
  4. Inflammation reduction
  5. Calming and relaxing central nervous system
  1. Overall health improvement
  2. Helps ease anxiety symptoms
  3. Safe for pregnant women
  4. Helps regulate appetite, motivation, and attention
  5. Relieving chronic pain

Exploring Side Effects and Risks of Acupuncture for Depression

Acupuncture is generally safe when administered by a licensed and qualified acupuncturist. However, like any medical intervention, there are potential side effects, which are typically mild and temporary:

  • Mild bruising and hematoma
  • Soreness
  • Minor bleeding
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

In extremely rare cases of improper practice by unlicensed acupuncturists, there is a potential risk of:

  • Hepatitis B (from administering dirty needles)
  • Infection
  • Nerve, organ, or tissue injury

To avoid these risks, it is imperative to seek only licensed professionals adhering to strict hygiene and safety guidelines. Generally, acupuncture is well accepted, however, if you have a pre-existing health condition, you should discuss your concerns with a practitioner first.

Before engaging in acupuncture treatment, speak to your doctor to make sure it is safe for you. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with these conditions should check with the doctor if they are a good candidate for acupuncture or not:

  • Bleeding disorders
  • Implanted pacemakers and other devices
  • Pregnancy

Research Findings: Is It Worth Trying Acupuncture for Depression?

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture has mainly been used to manage pain. In recent years, with the rise of the number of people who suffer from depression and anxiety, its potential for treating depression is drawing more attention.

While scientific research shows mixed results, some studies suggest that acupuncture may potentially reduce some symptoms like anxiety or insomnia. However, to get definitive conclusions, further analysis is necessary.

In general, and based on Western standard practices, many analyses are considered to be of low quality due to several reasons: cultural bias, placebo effect, and difficulty conducting double-blind studies.

Although the precise mechanism of regulating Qi energy is still not fully understood, it is believed that acupuncture impacts neurochemical pathways in the brain by reducing stress hormones and encouraging serotonin production. The effectiveness of acupuncture for depression is still a subject of ongoing investigation and is still recommended as a complementary therapy only, as suggested by a 2020 research review.

The Placebo Effect Debate

Even though multiple studies show that acupuncture can be quite effective when treating chronic pain, there is an argument from certain researchers that it could all be attributed to a placebo effect.

Similarly, acupuncture for depression has also faced skepticism regarding its effectiveness, with critics claiming the benefits are just a placebo effect. However, this study has concluded that acupuncture was successful in treating insomnia in people with Major depressive disorder (MDD). The quality of sleep of people with MDD has been dramatically improved in comparison with sham acupuncture (inactive procedure, used as an experimental tool in trials).

Currently, there is not enough evidence to confirm (or rule out) the placebo effect, and further research is needed.

Acupuncture as a Sole Treatment for Depression: Is It Possible?

Although acupuncture can help you lift the mood or relax, it is still used as a complementary therapy only, and not as a replacement for conventional treatments for depression. Further research is required to establish its definitive role. Existing evidence shows that the greatest benefits of acupuncture are experienced when it is integrated with standard treatments, such as talk therapy, medication, or psychiatry.

Acupuncture has a lot of potential to be accepted as a primary treatment for depression, however additional investigation is required to use it as a standalone therapy.

Is Acupuncture Right for Me?

Acupuncture is safe if applied by a certified practitioner. It has minimal or no side effects, however, check with your healthcare provider first to determine whether these treatments would be suitable for you.

Several factors can help evaluate the suitability, such as:

  • Personal preferences and beliefs
  • Time and money commitment
  • Your doctor’s advice
  • Are there certified acupuncturists in vicinity
  • Potential risks and side effects awareness

Finding a Qualified Acupuncturist

Choosing the right provider for your health issues can sometimes be tricky, and the same applies to finding the right acupuncturist. It is of utmost importance to only choose a practitioner with credentials and a license.

Certified specialists work according to the highest standards employing proper techniques, thus minimizing the potential risks. Acupuncture needles must be made from stainless steel, solid, sterile, and nontoxic, as required by the US Food and Drug Administration. Your practitioner should always use disposable, single-use needles, and swab acupoints with alcohol before inserting the needles.

Before making the first appointment, do a thorough research of the education, licensure, experience, reviews, and referrals. By checking the bios, you can also see what the area of expertise is. If you need help in your search, you can seek recommendations from your doctor or refer to National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), an official directory of certified acupuncturists.

Insurance Coverage

Make sure your health insurance covers acupuncture or that you can afford it before starting the treatment. Your insurance plan and provider determine the type of coverage. For instance, Medicare does not cover acupuncture for depression, however some insurance plans provide coverage under certain conditions. Speak to your insurance company to find out more information.

Note that not all acupuncturists accept insurance, but they might be able to work with you to find a suitable payment plan.

Final Thoughts on Acupuncture for Depression

Depression is a serious medical issue and anyone having the symptoms should seek help in the form of psychotherapy or medication. People with depression who are not receptive enough to standard therapy may consult with their healthcare provider about introducing acupuncture as a complementary method.

Research findings on acupuncture are encouraging. It might relieve depression, anxiety, and stress. However, more studies and trials are required before approving it as a substitute for conventional medicine. Overall, the best results are achieved by integrating acupuncture with talk therapy and medication. Things to keep in mind:

  • Consult with your doctor first
  • Look for licensed practitioners
  • Complementary method only
  • Minimal risks and side effects
  • Time and money obligations

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