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Acupuncture as an Alternative Treatment for Depression


Olivia Steinberg

February 21, 2011












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Depression is a disorder that is widespread in our society. Depression is characterized by “behavioral, cognitive and emotional features” (Smith, Hay, MacPherson, 2010). According to, there are two types of depression: endogenous and neurotic. Endogenous depression is when the cause of the depression is rooted within the individual. Neurotic depression is when the cause of the depression stems from outside of the body, usually due to an environmental factor or specific traumatic event or experience.  Both endogenous and neurotic depression result in the same symptoms. Those symptoms include “weight loss, over-eating, feelings of uselessness, sleep disturbances, self neglect and social withdrawal, insomnia or hypersomnia, loss of energy, low self esteem and poor concentration” (Smith et al., 2010). Depression is typically treated with antidepressants and psychology intervention, such as psychotherapy (Smith et al., 2010; Mukaino, Park, White, et al., 2011). According to Smith et al., cases of depression has been reported to be found in as high as 16.2% of the population (2010). Due to the high prevalence rate, doctors have sought out alternate treatments for depression- acupuncture being one of them.
















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History of Acupuncture

            Acupuncture has a long history. The practice of acupuncture originated in China and Japan (Smith et al., 2010) and is used to regulate the body’s chi. Acupuncture is a holistic medical treatment that some claim dates back to over 4,000 years ago ( Of course, the practice of acupuncture has changed very much since then, but the fundamental beliefs about how acupuncture works remains the same. In history, acupuncture was used to treat many of the same things that it is used for today, such as “emotional, psychological and spiritual disorders including anxiety, stress, insomnia, and depression” (Mukaino et al., 2011).


Description of Acupuncture

            As stated by, “acupuncture is a method of encouraging the body to promote natural healing and to improve functioning. This is done by inserting needles and applying heat or electrical stimulation at very precise acupuncture points”. Acupuncture is “a system which can influence three areas of health”: it promotes health and well-being, prevents illness, and treats a variety of medical disorders. Acupuncture is used to help treat a number of different things, such as digestive disorders, respiratory disorders, neurological and muscular disorders, and urinary, menstrual, and reproductive problems ( There are four types of acupuncture that are used today. There is traditional chinese medicine, or TCM, which is the most common form of acupuncture that is practiced in the United States. There is Japanese style acupuncture in which thinner needles are used and less stimulation is used. There is also Korean hand acupuncture which mainly focuses on hand therapy. The fourth type of acupuncture is Auricular acupuncture, also known as ear acupuncture, which mainly focuses on acupuncture in the ear (


How Acupuncture Works

            Thin needles are placed into different parts of the body, or trigger points, to regulate the energy of the body (Smith et al., 2010). Within an individual, there are multiple pathways that run throughout the body and connect certain areas to other areas. Acupuncture works because the different trigger points on the body connect and relate to other parts of the body located on the same pathway. For example, there are many trigger points on the foot that correlate to the stomach or to the head. “On the human body, there are more than 2,000 acupuncture points connecting with 12 main and eight secondary pathways” (Wang, Qi, Wang, Cui, hu, Rong, Chen, 2008). The acupuncture needles unblock the pathways which lead to a more natural flow of energy throughout the body. “Needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals will either change the experience of pain, or they will trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones which influence the body’s own internal regulating system” (



























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Research Claims About Acupuncture as a Treatment for Depression

            One study consisted of data from 30 studies. The study used meta-analysis in considering the data obtained from the 2,812 total participants. The results that this study found was that there was not sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion that acupuncture is an effective treatment for people with depression. However, the study states that “the results are limited by the high risk of bias in the majority of trails meeting the inclusion criteria”. Some of the trails within the study did find that acupuncture had a positive effect on depression. For example, two trials found that the use of acupuncture and medication has an increased benefit to using just medication alone. (Smith et al., 2010).      

            Another study included seven randomized trials that consisted of 509 participants. This study found that the results from each of the studies are not consistent, which leads to a conclusion that more studies need to be done in order to create a definite answer on the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for depression. There is, however, evidence that the effects of electroacupuncture may not be too much smaller than the effects of antidepressant medication (Mukaino et al., 2011).

            A third study conducted included eight small-randomized trials consisting of 477 patients.   This study, unlike the other two above, found that acupuncture “was an effective treatment that could significantly reduce the severity of disease in the patients with depression” (Wang et al., 2008).

            There are many other journals that cite other studies that were conducted, however these three results stated above are the only results that any study has been able to conclude.



            Acupuncture has some benefits and some disadvantages. One benefit is that it is a more holistic and natural treatment compared to other treatments for depression- such as antidepressant medications. One downside is that some patients reported that acupuncture caused them to be tired, have pain at the location where the needle was placed, and that acupuncture caused headaches (Smith et al., 2010). However, there are many disadvantages and side effects of every other treatment used to treat depression too. Studies have not had a uniform consensus as seen in the different outcomes of each study: that there is insufficient data to make any claims, that acupuncture is not an effective treatment for depression, and that acupuncture is an effective treatment. Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years and would not still be used today to treat depression if many individuals have had positive effects from acupuncture as a treatment for depression.









 Smith, C.A., Hay, P.P.J., MacPherson, H. (2010). Acupuncture for depression (review). The Cochrane Collaboration, 1, 1-79


Mukaino, Y., Park, J., White, A., et al. (2011). The effectiveness of acupuncture for depression - a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acupuncture in   Medicine, 23(2), 70-76       


Wang, H., Qi, H., Wang, B., Cui, Y., Zhu, L., Rong, Z., Chen, H. (2008). Is acupuncture beneficial in depression: A meta-analysis of 8 randomized controlled trials? Journals of    Affective Disorders, 111(2-3), 125-134






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