For people who do not wish to take medication or whose depression does not respond to treatment, acupuncture may be an alternative option. The research on acupuncture for depression is promising, but it has not conclusively proven that the technique is a substitute for traditional treatments.

Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that uses needles to redirect energy in the body. Practitioners believe that this helps release blocked energy and restore health and balance. Acupuncture for depression is an alternative and complementary treatment that practitioners claim may help support healing.

While depression often responds well to medication and therapy, about one-third of people with the condition have treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Because TRD is hard to treat, people may want to try alternative therapies.

Individuals who wish to try acupuncture for depression will get the best results by combining acupuncture with standard treatments such as therapy and medication.

Read more to learn about how acupuncture can help treat depression, what the research says, its side effects, and more.

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Acupuncture may help some people with depression, but the research is unclear.

Assessing the effectiveness of treatments for depression can be tricky. This is because people with depression often get better even without treatment — a process called spontaneous remission. Additionally, many individuals only improve after trying several treatments, and some continue to have symptoms despite trying many treatments.

A person’s depression symptoms may change over time, and no lab test can objectively measure depression symptoms. This makes it difficult to compare acupuncture to standard treatments such as medication.

Anecdotally, many people report improved symptoms from acupuncture, so it may be helpful for some individuals.

However, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, there is not enough evidence to know for sure whether acupuncture helps depression. However, this finding comes from research from before 2016. Since then, several newer studies have shown results in favor of acupuncture.

For example, a 2018 review of 64 prior studies compared acupuncture to no treatment, waitlisting, or treatment as usual. The review found that the practice

  • may slightly decrease the severity of depression in comparison with a placebo
  • may cause fewer negative side effects than medication
  • can substantially reduce depression symptoms in combination with medication

Overall, there is little quality evidence supporting acupuncture’s use in treating depression. This points to a need for more studies, and it means that the technique is not a substitute for standard treatments.

An acupuncture practitioner inserts long, thin needles into the top layer of skin to stimulate certain points on the body.

These individuals believe that energy called “qi” affects health. Blockages of this energy or changes in its flow can cause a wide range of symptoms. Acupuncture stimulates qi to flow correctly, promoting health.

Specific acupuncture points purportedly correlate with specific functions. Acupuncture for depression stimulates acupuncture points that practitioners believe improve mental health, optimism, pleasure, and other traits that have links to well-being.

While some studies support the use of acupuncture for depression, a 2018 review found weak evidence supporting its usefulness. Most notably, it concluded that acupuncture may improve outcomes when a person uses it along with antidepressant medication.

While experts are not entirely sure how acupuncture works for depression, a 2019 paper suggests this technique acupuncture may work by regulating neurotransmitters. Many antidepressants work on neurotransmitters, which are brain chemicals that help carry signals across a synapse.

Drawing on previous research, the study’s authors suggest that acupuncture might help regulate glutamate receptors, helping the body respond more effectively to neurotransmitters. This could offer benefits for depression and other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and anxiety.

A 2020 overview of recent meta-analyses suggests acupuncture may slightly reduce the severity of depression. The evidence also showed some improvement compared with certain antidepressants and suggests the practice might increase the effectiveness of antidepressants.

However, the quality of the data was very low, and some of the meta-analyses were contradictory. Therefore, it cannot conclusively prove that acupuncture works.

Most data suggest acupuncture is safe, but there are some risks to consider. Side effects are mild and rare.

However, all medical treatments pose some risks. A person may experience:

  • pain during or after acupuncture
  • bruising
  • bleeding
  • dizziness or headaches
  • nausea

Additionally, people with any history of allergies should tell their acupuncturist, since chemicals that clean the skin or the needles may trigger an allergic reaction. Metals in the needles may also be allergens.

When acupuncture practitioners use dirty needles, apply incorrect techniques, or are otherwise not knowledgeable in the practice, a person can have serious consequences such as:

  • bleeding
  • punctured organs
  • damage to major blood vessels
  • infection
  • contracting blood-borne diseases
  • broken needles under the skin

Therefore, people should take care to choose a reputable, licensed professional when choosing an acupuncturist.

Acupuncture can be a type of complementary medicine. This means that a person uses it alongside standard medical treatment rather than in place of it.

This approach offers the most potential benefits because it allows someone to gain the potential benefits of acupuncture in addition to the documented, evidence-backed benefits of medical treatment.

People considering acupuncture as a complementary intervention should consider incorporating therapy and medication, which are both standard treatments, into their treatment plan.

Acupuncture may offer relief from depression symptoms, and some research indicates it may be effective in relieving symptoms in combination with antidepressant medication.

However, the practice is not an alternative to standard treatments. Depression is a serious and potentially life threatening condition, and any person who experiences symptoms of this condition should seek treatment.