Acupuncture May Help Depression

A new study finds acupuncture to be highly effective in treating depression.



At least 1 in 10 Americans have been afflicted with major depression at some point in their lives, and some studies suggest that as many as 1 in 5 Americans have experienced significant depression before.  At any given time, an estimated 7 percent of adults in the United States are suffering from major depression.  (For reasons that are not entirely clear, women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with major depression.)  In view its very high incidence, it is not surprising that major depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people between the ages of 15 and 44.

There are a variety of potentially effective therapies available for depression including, primarily, cognitive therapy (i.e., meeting with a therapist for counseling) and antidepressant medications.  However, in view of the limited coverage made available for cognitive therapy by health insurers, there has been an increasing reliance upon antidepressant medications in the U.S. for many years.  While many of these medications can significantly reduce the signs and symptoms of major depression, they are often associated with significant side effects, and as many as half of all patients with severe chronic depression will fail to respond to most such medications.

A newly published prospective randomized controlled study from England suggests that acupuncture may be as effective as cognitive therapy and antidepressant medications as a treatment for depression.  This study appears in the online journal PLOS Medicine.

In this study, 755 patients with documented chronic major depression were randomized to one of three different treatment groups: acupuncture, cognitive therapy (counseling), and “usual care alone.”  (The latter group, which also included the use of antidepressant medications, served as the “control group” for this clinical study.)  All patient volunteers were subsequently reassessed with validated diagnostic tests throughout the 12-month course of this clinical study.

On average, the patient volunteers who participated in this clinical trial underwent 10 acupuncture sessions and 9 counseling sessions.  Compared to “usual care,” there was a statistically significant decrease in depression-associated symptoms in both the acupuncture and the counseling groups at 3 months and at 6 months after the start of this clinical study (by 12 months, however, the patients in the “usual care” group had improved to a level comparable to the acupuncture and counseling groups).  To summarize, acupuncture and counseling were each found to be highly effective in reducing the severity of depression-associated symptoms in patients with moderate-to-severe depression, and both were actually found to be more effective than the “usual care” (including antidepressant medications) received by the control group of patient volunteers at 3 months and at 6 months. 

This small study suggests a potential role for acupuncture in the treatment of major depression, and should stimulate additional research in this, and other, non-pharmacologic therapies for depression, particularly given the minimal risks associated with acupuncture in otherwise healthy patients.  However, if you are already taking antidepressant medications, and you are interested in trying acupuncture as a treatment for depression, please do not stop taking your medications without your doctor’s approval, as doing so could result in a worsening of your depression!


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According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty between September 2001 and December 2011 is more than 12 percent.  A new website, Veterans in Healthcare, seeks to connect veterans with potential employers.  If you are a veteran who works in the healthcare field, or if you are an employer who is looking for physicians, advanced practice professionals, nurses, corpsmen/medics, or other healthcare professionals, then please take a look at Veterans in Healthcare. As a retired veteran of the U.S. Army, I would also like to personally urge you to hire a veteran whenever possible.

Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity

Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author


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