What to Know About Acupuncture for Depression

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 02, 2023
4 min read

For about 3,000 years, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have used acupuncture to treat various medical conditions. In recent decades, acupuncture has become more popular in the United States, with more than 10 million acupuncture treatments given each year.

Some people are even turning to acupuncture to treat their mental health issues, including depression. For those who have not improved with regular treatment methods, acupuncture may be a useful alternative treatment. Here is what you need to know about using acupuncture for depression.

In acupuncture, thin steel needles, which are the width of a human hair, are inserted into specific parts of your body. Where the needles are inserted depends on the health issue being treated. Some health issues treated using acupuncture include: 

In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that the body has a flow of energy or qi that regulates your health. If the flow is disrupted, you’ll feel ill. Applying needles to specific acupuncture points, called meridians, rebalances your energy flow and improves your health. 

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is an illness that involves a constant feeling of sadness and a loss of interest or pleasure. There may also be several other symptoms:

  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Changes to appetite and weight
  • Irritability and frustration, even over small matters
  • Trouble concentrating, making decisions, remembering things
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness.

Depression is often treated with medication, talk therapy, or both. However, between 19% to 34% of those with depression don’t improve with medication or therapy. Many people (15% to 50%) will also have depression again despite ongoing treatment. 

Some people with depression are now giving alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, a try. In the United Kingdom, psychological distress, which includes depression, was the second most common reason why people tried acupuncture. 

There have been few research studies about acupuncture for depression, so it’s difficult to accurately measure its treatment benefits. Something that limits research into acupuncture as a treatment method is that it is hard to create a control condition. Practitioners and patients know if they are doing or having the treatment.

Despite these limitations, there is some research supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for depression and related symptoms. 

Decrease in severity of depression. In an 8-week acupuncture study of 151 men and women, researchers found that depressive symptoms improved significantly. Those who received acupuncture, whether targeted or nonspecific, improved more than those who did not. 

In another study, acupuncture was found to have similar effects compared to the antidepressant drug fluoxetine in those with post-stroke depression. 

Reduction in the number of migraines. Some people have both depression and migraines. Researchers found that those who have migraines or other severe headaches are three times more likely to have depression, compared to those who don’t have headaches. 

A 24-week study found that people who received acupuncture treatments had less frequent migraines than those who did not.

Reduction in depressive symptoms during pregnancy. Up to 14% of pregnant women may have depression. For some women, pregnancy is the cause of their depression. Depression during pregnancy can have risks for both mother and baby.

Some pregnant women may be worried about taking antidepressants and seek alternative treatments for their depression. Acupuncture may have an effect on depression during pregnancy. 

In a study, pregnant women with depression received depression-targeted acupuncture for 8 weeks. Another group of pregnant women received non-specific acupuncture, and a third group received prenatal massages. The women who received depression-specific acupuncture had a greater reduction in depressive symptoms compared to those who received the other treatments.

Some common side effects of acupuncture include bruising, minor bleeding, or soreness in the places where needles were inserted. Rare side effects include dizziness, local internal bleeding, nerve damage, dermatitis, increased pain, and hepatitis B.

You may be at a higher risk for complications if you have certain medical issues. If you have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners, the likelihood of bleeding or bruising increases. 

If you have a pacemaker, infusion pump, or another electrical device, you might want to avoid electroacupuncture, which uses a device to generate electric stimulation. Electroacupuncture can interfere with your device. 

Some types of acupuncture are believed to induce labor. If you are pregnant, be careful about the types of acupuncture you receive. 

Be sure to discuss any alternative treatments you are trying with your doctor.

The risks of acupuncture are generally low, but it is important to go to a certified practitioner. Certified acupuncturists will be trained in the proper techniques and reduce your risk of injury.

Your practitioner should use a new package of sterile needles at your appointment. They should also swab all puncture sites with alcohol before inserting any needles.

Most acupuncturists use disposable, single-use needles, so the risk of infection is very low. The US Food and Drug Administration requires that acupuncture needles be stainless steel, solid, sterile, and nontoxic.

If you don’t know where to start looking for an acupuncturist, you can ask your doctor for recommendations. You can also check with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for practitioners in your area.

Be sure to check if acupuncture is covered by your insurance or that you can cover the costs before you begin any acupuncture treatments.