Acupuncture Works for Depression

10-16-2013 12-07-18 PMA recent large study showed that accupuncture was helpful for depression when it was added on to usual care (which mostly involved antidepressants). 755 patients being treated  in 27 primary-care clinics were randomly referred for accupuncture, humanistic counseling, or neither add-on treatment. The participants typically had moderately severe depression that was chronic (many of them had had depression since childhood).

Both add-on’s were moderately effective and led to improvements on a standard depression rating scale (the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9)) when compared with usual care alone and had small-to-medium effect sizes – average depression improvement of about 30%. There were few adverse effects.

We are now in a similar place with regard to acupuncture as a treatment for depression as we were perhaps 15 or 20 years ago with regard to therapy.  We know that at least one kind of acupuncture done by trained acupuncturists is helpful, but this does not translate into ready availability of effective acupuncture treatment.

A couple of years ago we were very interested in finding a acupuncturist who could provide treatments for a patient with depression.  We made a series of phone calls to colleagues in the bay area and we could not find one acupuncturist who was knowledgeable about the specific approach to treating depression with acupuncture that was described in the research study.

Many acupuncturists said that they felt confident that they could treat patients with depression but it was not clear to us how many of them were really knowledgeable.

All of the literature in the healthcare field indicates that having a treater who is knowledgeable about the specific treatment being provided and who has experience working with a number of people with a condition makes a big difference in terms of outcome.  Hopefully, we will soon have more ready access to this approach to treating people with chronic depression.

  1. MacPherson H et al. Acupuncture and counselling for depression in primary care: A randomised controlled trial. PLoS Med 2013 Sep 24; 10:e1001518. (