Adding acupuncture to regular medical care is an effective treatment for moderate to severe depression.

A large research study from Britain brings good news to those suffering from depression. If you have moderate to severe depression, the typical treatment may include antidepressants or painkillers. The trouble is, those medications may not be effective to reduce depressive symptoms. In an effort to find better ways to improve the lives of those struggling with this mood disorder, researchers found that adding acupuncture to the usual medical treatment provided more relief than just the usual medical treatment alone.

In this trial, three interventions similar to what a patient would experience in the real world were compared. The researchers wanted to see which of the treatments would be the most effective at reducing the symptoms of moderate to severe depression. Seven hundred fifty-five people who were receiving the regular medical treatment for depression were randomized into one of the following groups: 1) 302 people received the addition of acupuncture, 2) 302 received the addition of counseling, and 3) 102 received usual medical treatment alone. The usual medical treatment could include antidepressants or painkillers. Those who received the addition of acupuncture received up to 12 weekly acupuncture sessions based on their Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis by a qualified British acupuncturist. Those who received the addition of counseling also received up to 12 sessions by a qualified British counselor.

After three months of treatment, adding acupuncture to the usual medical treatment was more effective to reduce the symptoms of depression as measured on the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9). Also of interest, the addition of acupuncture was just as effective in reducing depression symptoms as the addition of counseling to the usual medical treatment.

Why is this important? For those that have not had success with regular medical treatment or are seeking treatment alternatives, this study suggests acupuncture is an effective addition to usual medical care. Together, they manage the symptoms of moderate to severe depression at least as well as counseling added to usual care, but better than usual care alone.

How does acupuncture improve symptoms of depression? Moderate to severe depression is a complex disorder and can manifest in many ways.  It can also coexist with pain or other medical conditions. A primary manifestation of depression is feeling an abundance of sadness, anger, fear, worry, etc. In Chinese medicine theory, unbalanced and unresolved emotions can also be a cause of disease. An excess of these emotions was identified as a cause of imbalance and dysfunction in early Chinese medicine classical texts. When acupuncture is used, like it was in the study mentioned above, it can help resolve the emotional upset and encourage the body to return to an optimal state of function. It helps a person to become more emotionally resilient.

The exact mechanisms explaining how acupuncture works are not yet well understood. But, we do know that acupuncture can regulate the nervous system, brain, neurotransmitters and hormones, which may partially explain why some of these improvements occurred in the treatment of depression. While more research is needed to better understand how acupuncture can treat depression, this large study provides substantial evidence that acupuncture is a relevant and effective treatment for depression. If you or a loved one suffers from moderate to severe depression, consider adding acupuncture to your current depression treatment.

Guest Column by Lee Hullender Rubin, DAOM, LAc



1. MacPherson H, Richmond S, Bland M, Brealey S, Gabe R, et al. (2013) Acupuncture and Counselling for Depression in Primary Care: A Randomised Controlled Trial. PLoS Med 10(9): e1001518. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001518

Lee Hullender Rubin, DAOM, LAc is an acupuncturist, herbalist and clinical researcher specializing in reproductive medicine and pelvic/vulvar pain. She is a faculty member in OCOM's doctoral program. and has taught in the master’s program. She is currently funded by the National Vulvodynia Association to complete a feasibility pilot study to investigate acupuncture as a treatment for provoked, localized vulvodynia. She practices at the Portland Acupuncture Studio.