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Can Acupuncture Help with My Depression?

Managing Depression

July 08, 2024

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Photography by Iuliia Burmistrova/Getty Images

Photography by Iuliia Burmistrova/Getty Images

by Clara Siegmund


Medically Reviewed by:

Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT


by Clara Siegmund


Medically Reviewed by:

Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT


Acupuncture may help you manage and treat depression symptoms. Here’s what you need to know about how this alternative treatment can help, plus the best way to optimize the potential benefits.

Acupuncture, a part of traditional East Asian medicine, has been practiced for millennia.

This medical treatment continues to be used worldwide for a variety of conditions, and its use in Western medical settings is increasing.

Acupuncture for depression and other mental health conditions is one growing area of study. But does acupuncture really treat depression?

Here’s what you need to know about acupuncture and depression.

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What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that’s been practiced for more than 2,500 years.

According to TCM, health is regulated by the flow of vital energy, or qi, which circulates throughout the body through different channels known as meridians. Health conditions can occur when blockages in meridians disrupt this flow.

Acupuncture seeks to unblock meridians in order to restore the flow of qi and treat the ailment.

Acupuncturists insert extremely thin needles into specific spots — acupuncture points — around your body. The acupuncture points targeted in a given session vary depending on the condition being treated.

Once the needles are inserted, acupuncturists gently manipulate them to stimulate the acupuncture point.

There are a couple different methods. In manual acupuncture, practitioners manipulate the needles with their hands. Electroacupuncture sends mild electrical pulses through the needles to make them gently vibrate.

In the United States, the FDA regulates acupuncture needles as medical devices. Needles must be sterile and used only once.

When administered by a licensed and certified acupuncturist, acupuncture is completely safe and nearly painless. For some, it’s pain-free. You may feel a slight prick or pressure as the needle is inserted, or you may feel nothing at all.

Some people experience light bruising or soreness around insertion sites following a session, but this usually doesn’t last long.

If you have a bleeding disorder or take blood thinners, you may be more likely to bruise or bleed slightly during treatment. It’s important to tell your acupuncturist about any blood conditions or medications so that they can adapt treatment as necessary.

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Can acupuncture help manage depressive symptoms?

Acupuncture has been used to treat a variety of conditions for thousands of years. In Western medical settings, clinical research into acupuncture treatment has been ongoing since the 1970s, and the practice is growing.

While acupuncture is most well-known as a treatment method for pain relief, study into the potential benefits of acupuncture for mental health is expanding, and results are promising.

A growing body of work suggests that acupuncture may offer benefits for depression and provide relief from depressive symptoms.

What does the research on acupuncture and depression show?

2023 review and meta-analysis analyzed 22 studies on acupuncture for depression involving 2,391 participants. It concludes that acupuncture is a beneficial and safe way to manage and treat depression, both on its own and as a complementary treatment.

In particular, the authors found that combining electroacupuncture and antidepressants was the most effective way to treat depression, followed by a combination of manual acupuncture and antidepressants. The review also reports that treatment is even more impactful when acupuncture sessions happen more frequently over a longer period of time.

Similarly, a 2015 review and meta-analysis of 13 studies involving 1,046 participants found that acupuncture combined with antidepressants (SSRIs, in particular) was a more effective depression treatment than antidepressants alone.

That review also notes that acupuncture treatment provided benefits quickly, was safe, and had minimal side effects.

Other comparisons of acupuncture with usual depression treatment methods, whether antidepressants or talk therapy, also suggest promising results.

A small study from 2013 found electroacupuncture on its own to be just as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) at easing depression symptoms. A larger 2017 study concluded that acupuncture is just as effective as counseling for symptom relief. 

Acupuncture may also be a useful alternative for people who can’t take antidepressants.

2023 review and meta-analysis, for example, reports that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment method for late-life depression both on its own and with antidepressants, noting that acupuncture could be particularly beneficial for people who don’t tolerate antidepressant side effects.

Not all studies are as conclusive about the effectiveness of acupuncture for depression.

A 2018 review and meta-analysis, based on 64 studies with 7,104 participants, found that acupuncture may have a moderate impact on depression and may reduce depression severity when compared to no treatment at all, treatment as usual, and sham acupuncture (needles inserted into non-acupuncture points, for example). 

As for acupuncture compared to antidepressants, the authors found that results aren’t yet reliable — evidence was too low quality to really say how the two methods compare. In other words, more research is needed.

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What does this mean for acupuncture and depression?

So, can acupuncture help your depression? It would appear so.

Current research seems to suggest that acupuncture has at least some benefit for depression, even if the level of effectiveness isn’t yet conclusive.

Acupuncture may be particularly effective when used as a complementary treatment method with other forms of depression care, like antidepressants and talk therapy. Supplementing treatment with acupuncture appears to boost benefits and more effectively ease symptoms of depression.

Keep in mind, however, that acupuncture shouldn’t replace your existing depression care.

How does acupuncture help depression?

Scientists and doctors are still discovering how acupuncture can help depression.

Some of the main theories are related to:

  • neurogenesis and plasticity: how our brains develop new neurons and form new connections
  • the amygdala: a part of the brain responsible for emotional processing
  • neurotransmitters: chemical messengers that help the brain send signals throughout the body, and play a role in mood and emotion

Some research finds that acupuncture may help regulate neurogenesis and plasticity in the brain.

By activating and facilitating neuron growth, acupuncture may help the brain recover from various neurological and psychological symptoms, and form new thought patterns.

Other theories suggest that benefits may be connected to the amygdala. In people with depression, the amygdala doesn’t always work the way it should: it can be overly sensitive to negative emotional stimuli, which is part of what can make it hard to process upsetting emotions.

Acupuncture may help restore normal function in the amygdala.

Still, more theories hold that neurotransmitters may be involved. People with depression have low levels of certain neurotransmitters, and antidepressants work by increasing these levels.

Similar to antidepressants, acupuncture may stimulate the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphinsserotonindopamine, and norepinephrine, helping to regulate emotions and relieve depressive symptoms.

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How to find an acupuncturist

Adding acupuncture to your treatment regimen may help supplement your depression care and ease symptoms.

If you’re interested in trying acupuncture for depression, the first consideration is licensing. Finding a licensed and certified acupuncturist ensures that your chosen practitioner meets education, training, and practice standards, so they can safely administer treatment.

Most U.S. states require that acupuncturists be certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). This NCCAOM national database can help you find a licensed and board certified acupuncturist in your area.

Not all acupuncturists are familiar with depression care. You may find it useful to talk with potential practitioners about their experience in acupuncture for mental healthcare, and to discuss your treatment goals.

The bottom line

For many people with depression, managing symptoms may require a multi-pronged approach.

Research into acupuncture for depression is ongoing, but there’s reason to believe that acupuncture may offer benefits as a complementary depression treatment.

Combining acupuncture with other forms of depression care, including antidepressants and talk therapy, may help you more effectively ease symptoms.

As always, consider keeping your care team in the loop when you add new methods to your depression treatment regimen, and avoid discontinuing any treatment methods without your doctor’s OK.

Medically reviewed on July 08, 2024

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About the author

Clara Siegmund

Clara Siegmund is a writer, editor, and translator (French to English) from Brooklyn, New York. She has a BA in English and French Studies from Wesleyan University and an MA in Translation from the Sorbonne. She frequently writes for women’s health publications. She is passionate about literature, reproductive justice, and using language to make information accessible.

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