Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). For over 2,500 years, practitioners have used needles to stimulate specific areas as a way to treat a variety of conditions.
As acupuncture has worked its way into Western medicine, the practice has become a staple in complementary care. Researchers have also begun to look into the benefits it may offer other conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
Very few rigorous or reliable studies have looked at the benefits of acupuncture. Many studies have returned unclear and often contradictory results.
Still, several large studies have found promising results for the use of acupuncture. Although the overall research is slim, there may be reason to believe acupuncture may provide some relief for various ailments.
In TCM, your “qi” is the flow of energy through your body. Qi streams through your body on energy channels known as meridians.
It’s believed that if your energy becomes blocked or stopped up, it may result in illness. This could present with physical symptoms, such as an aching back, or emotional symptoms, such as stress and anxiety.
Acupuncture is believed to help remove blockages and restore energy flow, balancing your organs, mind, and body.
Many Western healthcare providers question the efficacy of acupuncture. It’s not exactly a verifiable and science-based treatment. However, research does show that the needles from acupuncture treatments release endorphins in your body.
Endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers. An increase in these hormones could provide a natural boost to your body and brain.
If you receive a nondrug or control treatment — like a sugar pill in place of a pain reliever — and report symptom relief, researchers consider it a “placebo effect.”
There aren’t enough well-designed studies to rule out or confirm that improvements after acupuncture aren’t just a placebo effect or occur simply because you expect them to.
And unlike a placebo pill or medicine, a placebo acupuncture treatment still requires a patient to be seen and touched by a practitioner. This hands-on connection can make some people, especially people dealing with depression, feel significantly better, regardless of the needle work.
Acupuncture is safe for most people. It rarely causes any serious side effects. Even mild side effects are unusual.
When side effects do occur, they include:
- itching at the area of treatment
- allergic reaction to needles
- bleeding from needle point
- bruising around needle point
- muscle twitching
There have been cases in which acupuncture led to a spinal injury, infection, and respiratory or cardiac problems. The biggest risk related to acupuncture is believed to come from improper technique. This is why you should only use practitioners who are trained and certified.
Each practitioner may select different acupoints. Each point corresponds to a part of the meridian or qi that’s being targeted for relief. These acupoints are all over your body, from your head and neck to your legs and feet.
The following acupoints are commonly targeted in an effort to ease depression symptoms:
- Guanyuan (CV4)
- Qihai (CV6)
- Zhongwan (CV12)
- Hegu (L14)
- Master of Heart 6 (MH6)
- Yanglingquan (GB34)
- Zusanli (ST36)
- Taixi (K13)
- Shugu (BL65)
- Sanyingjiao (SP6)
- Quchi (LI11)
- Yinxi (HT6)
Acupuncture may help ease depression symptoms, as well as treat the underlying condition, although more research is needed to confirm.
In one 2013 study, researchers found that electroacupuncture, a type of acupuncture that uses a mild electric current transmitted through the needles, was just as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) in easing depression symptoms.
In another study, researchers examined the effect of acupuncture on sexual dysfunction, one of the most common antidepressant side effects. Both men and women in this study showed significant improvement after 12 weeks of acupuncture treatment.
Although you could use acupuncture as a solo treatment, it’s considered more effective when used in combination with antidepressants and other clinical treatments.
In fact, some research suggests that acupuncture may even help clinical treatments work better and may be as effective as counseling when used as a part of a complementary care plan.
Acupuncture studies use variable frequencies of treatment. They range from once a week to six days a week. No studies have compared how often treatments are given to discover what’s likely to produce the best response in people with depression.
Very frequent treatments may be difficult because of the time and money required. Work with your provider to find a pace that best meets your physical, emotional, and financial needs.
It’s very possible you’ll visit your acupuncturist frequently in the beginning. After you’ve been treated, you may reach a level where you don’t need regular visits. This is something you and the practitioner can work out together.
Insurance coverage for acupuncture depends on your plan and provider. In 2012, only 25 percent of people who used acupuncture had some measure of insurance coverage for the treatment.
Some large health insurance companies do cover acupuncture. However, they may not pay for every claim. Instead, they may limit coverage to those with specific conditions, such as chronic pain.
Medicare doesn’t cover acupuncture, but Medicaid does in some states.
If you have questions about what’s covered, call your health insurance company. They’ll be able to provide you with coverage information.
If you’re considering acupuncture, it’s always good to do some research, study the potential benefits and risks, and weigh your options. Likewise, it’s not a bad idea to get a second opinion from a doctor or healthcare provider you trust.
Consider these questions before you sign up for an acupuncture session:
- Am I open to the concept? If you’re too skeptical, you might look for reasons the treatment didn’t work.
- Can I commit to regular treatments? Acupuncture is an ongoing therapy. You may need to see your practitioner regularly.
- Can I afford acupuncture? If your insurance does not cover this treatment, you will have to pay out of pocket for it. That can be costly, especially if you have multiple treatments weekly or monthly.
It’s very important to find a certified acupuncture practitioner. These professionals are trained to provide the best care in the cleanest and safest environment.
You’re more likely to experience side effects and more serious complications if you go to a practitioner who isn’t certified.
Ask people you trust for a recommendation. Your doctor, chiropractor, or massage therapist may be able to direct you to a trusted option.
When you find a practitioner, check their training and credentials. Acupuncturists who aren’t also physicians must pass an exam from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.