More than 40 million U.S. adults have symptoms of anxiety, which refers to excessive worrying that’s hard to control and often impacts daily life. It’s often treated with psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both.
Acupuncture, an ancient practice that involves inserting needles into pressure points on your body, is becoming a popular alternative treatment for anxiety. There’s some scientific evidence that acupuncture helps with certain symptoms of anxiety. However, researchers are still trying to determine the effect of acupuncture on specific types of anxiety, such as panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Keep reading to learn more about what we do — and don’t yet— know about using acupuncture to treat anxiety.
There have been several studies done about the effects of acupuncture on anxiety. These studies have focused mostly on generalized anxiety disorder and suggest that acupuncture is helpful in treating general anxiety.
One promising study from 2015, for example, found that acupuncture improved symptoms in people with anxiety that didn’t respond to other treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. Participants received ten 30-minute sessions of acupuncture over the course of 12 weeks. They experienced a significant reduction in their anxiety, even 10 weeks after treatment.
However, two reviews of existing research, one from 2007 and another from 2013, note that many studies on the subject aren’t very reliable. Some had very few participants — including the one mentioned above — while others were poorly designed. On the other hand, these reviews also point out that acupuncture doesn’t seem to have a negative effect on anxiety.
In a more recent 2016 study on rats, acupuncture was found to be effective for reducing anxiety. The researchers suggested that it impacts how the body triggers the fight-or-flight response.
While we need to better understand how acupuncture affects anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias, research is showing promise for acupuncture as a viable and safe option. If you have anxiety that hasn’t responded to other treatment methods, or you’re simply interested in trying something new, acupuncture shouldn’t worsen your symptoms.
While acupuncture won’t make your anxiety worse, it does come with some possible side effects and risks. You can avoid most of these by making sure you see a licensed acupuncturist. In the United States, license requirements vary from state to state, but most require taking an exam from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
The main side effect that people experience with acupuncture is soreness following a session. This usually goes away within a few hours, though it can also leave some bruising. Some people also feel pinpricks of pain during a session.
Licensed acupuncturists are required to use sterile, disposable needles. You could get an infection if your practitioner didn’t use properly sterilized needles. The Mayo Clinic notes that these complications are very uncommon if you see an experienced, certified acupuncturist.
People with some health conditions shouldn’t have acupuncture. You should avoid acupuncture if you:
It’s also important to keep up with any ongoing anxiety treatment, including prescribed medications, while getting acupuncture. You shouldn’t stop any medications without first discussing with your doctor.
When you go in for your first appointment, your acupuncturist will start by asking you which symptoms you’re looking to treat. They’ll also ask about any medications you take, your medical history, and any other health concerns you have. This is a good time to ask any lingering questions you have about the process.
During your actual session, they’ll insert long, thin needles into different pressure points on your body. Depending on the pressure points used, this could take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. Your acupuncturist might also twist the needles or apply an electrical pulse to them. They’ll leave the needles in for up to 20 minutes before carefully removing them.
You likely won’t feel instant gratification. Most acupuncture treatments are intended to be repeated. Some people report immediate improvements but most notice subtle and gradual changes with repeated visits.
Before you go, make sure you understand the costs involved. Some health insurance plans cover acupuncture for medical or mental health conditions, including anxiety, but others don’t.
Acupuncture may be an effective low-risk treatment option for anxiety. More research is being done but there is promise and it shouldn’t make your symptoms worse.
Make sure you find a properly trained licensed acupuncturist in your state — they’ll be registered with the state health board. It’s also important to keep up with your other anxiety treatments, such as therapy or medication. You may also want to use other alternative treatments, including relaxation, exercises, and meditation to reduce stress and improve your overall well-being.