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Research: Acupuncture for Depression at least as Effective as Medication

I am writing about depression for this season’s research article because as you can see from reading the featured Fire/Summer piece, it is actually vital for our health–not a luxury– that we experience joy, connection, and fun.  Because I’ve experienced such good results with using Chinese medicine for emotional imbalances, I decided to go online and see what the research has to say about acupuncture and “the blues”.

Although unfortunately it turns out not many studies have been done to this day, the ones that have been done have pretty unanimously agreed that acupuncture is at least as effective as antidepressants, yet without the side-effects of medication.

The very first pilot controlled study on treating depression symptoms with acupuncture in the Western scientific world was done by psychologist John Allen, from the University of Arizona in Tucson, and Acupuncturist Rosa Schnyer.  In this double blind randomized study, 34 depressed female patients who met the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria were assigned to one of three treatment groups for eight weeks. 

At the end of eight weeks, Allen and co-workers found that the women in the tailored acupuncture treatment group were significantly less depressed than those in the non-specific treatment group, and over 50% of the participants receiving tailored acupuncture no longer met the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for depression.  This study was convincing enough that the World Health Organization approved acupuncture as treatment for depression.

In another controlled trial, 20 patients were treated with acupuncture and 21 patients were treated with an antidepressant (control).   Both treatments lasted 6 weeks.

Those receiving acupuncture experienced as much relief of depression as those receiving medication, however, improvement in anxiety was significantly higher in the acupuncture group compared with the control group.

Both of these studies are promising, however, much more are obviously needed to back up the results that all of us as acupuncturists see in our practices.  

For example, what explains the fact that I have a much higher success rate than just over 50%?

Well, first off, none of these studies actually uses acupuncture how it is used in China, in which patients start out receiving treatment more frequently than just once per week. (Once-per-week treatments is a western convention that actually has no basis on what each individual needs or how the medicine originated, and common sense begs the obvious conclusion that completely varied symptoms and severities would dictate varying treatment protocols as well.)  Patients given treatment according to their actual needs respond better than when everyone is treated in the exact same way. 

Second, I commonly combine herbs with acupuncture when possible, which increases the success rate exponentially.

One complication that patients need to look out for, is that patients with depression tend to have a more hopeless outlook on recovery, which is characteristic of depression but tends to increase the likelihood of their backing out of treatment before it has had a chance to take effect. Careful counseling on expectations and timelines on recovery help keep patient compliance higher.

I urge anyone with depression to do whatever they can to improve their chances of experiencing joy and fulfillment this summer, as those experiences are not only necessary to stay balanced, but we continuously feed off the high that they give us as the winter months hit and it becomes the natural time to sink inward and experience the more serious aspects of life. (see featured Fire article for more explanation)

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-Allen, J. J. B. (2000). Depression and acupuncture: a controlled clinical trial. Psychiatric Times Online, 22, 3.

-Pavel Jalynytchev, Lic Ac and Valentina Jalynytchev, MDMay 12, 2009. Psychiatric Times**

Tags: depression