Acupuncture for Depression

by Nicole Murray, L.Ac.

All of us experience sadness sometimes, as part of the range of human emotions. We experience ‘the blues’, grief, heartache, and irritability. Depression, however, is a serious medical illness of the brain. This mood disorder “causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest” (Mayo Clinic). The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that, as of 2005, “about 20.9 million American adults, or 9.5 percent of the population ages 18 and older, have mood disorders,” including depression. Major depressive disorder is “the leading cause of disability among Americans age 15 – 44,” according to the World Health Organization.

The disease is still not fully understood, but experts widely agree that there are multiple factors that may be involved, including: biological (MRIs have shown differences in the brains of people with depression); brain chemistry (malfunctions in neurotransmitter system); family history; and/or a history of trauma.

Symptoms of the disease are both emotional and physical, and significantly affect day-to-day life.

The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following signs and symptoms of the disease:
* Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings;
* Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism;
* Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness;
* Irritability, restlessness;
* Loss of interest in activities once pleasurable, including sex;
* Fatigue and decreased energy;
* Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions;
* Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping;
* Overeating, or appetite loss;
* Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts;
* Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

NCS-R data-Major Depressive Disorder prevalence 720

Courtesy of National Institute of Mental Health


Conventional treatment involves both antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. These therapies are most effective when the patient uses them together. Interestingly, ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, or electroshock treatment) is being used more widely again, for very severe cases. The patient is under anesthesia and receives ECT for about an hour, multiple times a week, for a course of treatment.

Acupuncture is gaining more recognition as an effective therapy for depression. There have been several small studies showing positive outcomes. A larger study, conducted in the U.K. in 2013, showed a significant reduction in depressive symptoms for the group that used acupuncture. The 755 subjects were divided into three groups: those who received ‘usual care’ alone (mostly antidepressant medication); those who received counseling as well as usual care; and those who received acupuncture as well as usual care. Both interventions were associated with significantly reduced depression at 3 months when compared to usual care alone. The acupuncture group had slightly better results even than the counseling group.

Given that one out of 10 Americans are coping with a mood disorder, we at BCA treat depression quite a bit, and patients report that they find it quite helpful. Many of these people have even been able to work with their MDs to wean off of their medications. That said, we absolutely never recommend stopping medication on your own, hoping to deal with depression ‘naturally.’ Some people will always need to take medication. We work to keep people safe while improving their quality of life.

Our recommended course of treatment depends on severity of symptoms. People with suicidal thoughts are having a medical emergency and need to call 911. People who are experiencing severe symptoms, excluding suicidal thoughts, should come daily until they get some relief. Most commonly, we see people who are managing their symptoms but who are still wanting to improve their quality of life. We recommend these people come 2-3 times a week until they feel better, and then anywhere from weekly to monthly for maintenance.

References: * NIMH: Depression * Mayo Clinic: Mood Disorders * NIH: Depression * Medline Plus: Depression * MacPherson, Hugh, et al. “Acupuncture and Counselling for Depression in Primary Care: A Randomised Controlled Trial.” PLOS Medicine, 9/24/13. Web 6/11/14.

Acupuncture for Depression
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