Understanding Acupuncture for Depression

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Acupuncture as a treatment for depression has increasingly become the subject of research, but there's little consensus about its effectiveness. This is largely because this treatment is difficult to investigate empirically, so most existing research is of low quality. Nevertheless, acupuncture for depression continues to grow in popularity, so it deserves attention—especially for those in whom other methods have failed.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a technique based on traditional Chinese medicine that uses the insertion of fine needles to unblock channels of energy (also known as Qi) that are thought to reside within the body.

Principles of Acupuncture

According to the philosophy behind acupuncture, emotions are represented by five elements:

  • Fear (Water)
  • Anger (Wood)
  • Happiness (Fire)
  • Worry (Earth)
  • Grief (Metal)

Chinese medicine regards the mind and body as interacting together: What you feel in your mind can have a physical impact on your body. Each organ—thought of as either "yin" or "yang"— is thought to correspond to a certain emotion. For example, the liver is thought to correspond to anger. In this line of thought, feeling anger can cause trouble for your liver. Likewise, a blocked flow to your liver could result in you feeling angry.

To alleviate this kind of energy congestion, acupuncture clears the meridians in your body to allow Qi to move about freely. This is accomplished by inserting fine needles into certain points of your body that correspond to the meridians and connect to your organs.

How Acupuncture for Depression Is Practiced

The acupuncturist inserts needles into points on your body that connect to your negative emotions. The needles are thought to fix blocked energy or imbalances in your body, which also influence your mind.

Chinese medicine regards the mind and body as interacting together: What you feel in your mind can have a physical impact on your body.

Points an acupuncturist might use to relieve depression symptoms include:

  • Guanyuan (CV4): lower back
  • Qihai (CV6): below the navel
  • Zhongwan (CV12): over the middle of the stomach
  • Hegu (L14): on the hand
  • Master of Heart 6 (MH6): underside of wrist
  • Yanglingquan (GB34): on the leg
  • Zusanli (ST36): below the knee
  • Taixi (K13): on the ankle
  • Shugu (BL65):

After your acupuncturist has inserted needles, you lie still on a table in a peaceful setting, such as with ambient music, aromatherapy, and mood lighting. You might receive this treatment once or several times a week, depending on your situation.

It's not hard to imagine that this might help you feel better, regardless of whether acupuncture actually treats depression. In fact, the state you're in after receiving acupuncture has been referred to as "acubliss."

Possible Side Effects of Acupuncture

Although side effects are rare, they do happen. Using a certified professional for acupuncture reduces the risk of side effects.

Mild Side Effects

The following side effects may be seen at the site where the needles were inserted:

  • Itchiness
  • Allergic reaction
  • Feeling sore
  • Bleeding or bruising

Serious Side Effects (Rare)

The following side effects are rare but possible:

  • Nerve damage
  • Infection
  • Dizziness or fainting

Research on Acupuncture for Depression

While numerous studies have attempted to determine acupuncture's effectiveness for depression, the quality of some of this research is in question. This is because setting up a proper study free of bias is quite difficult.

Potential Sources of Study Bias

Below are some of the potential sources of bias and why they may be a problem for acupuncture in particular.

  • Difficulty creating an adequate control condition (i.e., it's hard to fake acupuncture)
  • Difficulty blinding patients and practitioners (i.e., the acupuncturist will know if they are doing the treatment or not)
  • Cultural bias (i.e., studies in the East are more likely to show positive findings than studies in the West)
  • Acupuncture's strong placebo effect (so any real smaller effect may be hard to detect)

A solid research study on acupuncture for depression should:

  • Include an adequate control group
  • Account for the placebo effect
  • Take into account blinding
  • Replicate results across different locations

Acupuncture for Depression Research: A Review

In one large review that included 64 studies and 7,104 participants, most studies were at risk for various kinds of bias (e.g., detection bias, selection bias, reporting bias, etc.)

However, low-quality evidence suggests that acupuncture could reduce the severity of depression compared to no treatment, waitlist, or treatment as usual.

When compared with sham acupuncture, there was a small reduction in the severity of depression. This suggests that acupuncture may have more of an effect than a placebo for depression.

Compared to medication, there was low-quality evidence of a small benefit, which varied by type of medication and mode of acupuncture (regular vs. electro).

Finally, when compared with psychological therapy, the results were unclear. No conclusions could be drawn about evidence of an effect beyond that observed for psychological therapy for depression.

In addition, few of the studies conducted follow-ups or studied other variables such as quality of life, which are important in depression research.

Western Research on Acupuncture and Stress

Meanwhile, there does seem to be evidence of acupuncture's effectiveness in blocking stress hormones and the stress response. This may be because the needles activate endorphins, the brain's natural painkillers.

What Is Depression?

Depression is an illness characterized by a persistently depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure accompanied by other symptoms such as weight/appetite changes, concentration problems, too much/too little sleep, hopelessness, fatigue, negative thoughts, and suicidal ideation. Brain chemistry, hormones, genetics, life experiences, and physical health can all play a role.

Is Acupuncture for Depression Right for Me?

If you're still not sure whether acupuncture for depression is right for you, consider the following:

  • Can you afford it? Will your health insurance cover it?
  • Do you have time to attend sessions on a regular basis?
  • Are you open to the experience and willing to accept potential side effects?
  • Is there a certified professional nearby? If you aren't sure where to look, ask for a referral from your doctor or a certifying agency such as the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).
  • Have you exhausted other traditional avenues of treatment for depression, or are you looking for a complement to other treatments?
  • Have you spoken to your doctor about your desire to receive acupuncture?

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Acupuncture for depression is an alternative therapy that has received only modest research support. This healing therapy based on ancient Chinese medicine appears to show a small benefit for those with depression. If you are considering receiving this treatment, be sure that you contact a registered professional with proper training.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Smith CA, Armour M, Lee MS, Wang LQ, Hay PJ. Acupuncture for depression. Cochrane Common Mental Disorders Group, ed. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2018;2018(3). doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004046.pub4

  2. Lee MJ, Ryu JS, Won SK, et al. Effects of acupuncture on chronic stress-induced depression-like behavior and its central neural mechanismFront Psychol. 2019;10:1353. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01353

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.