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Acupuncture As A Treatment For Depression

Virtual Psychiatrist
Fact Checked by
- Dr. Gundu Reddy
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Depression is a major mental disorder that causes grief and sadness. It even results in loss of pleasure in activities that usually provide joy. Depression can be characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest. It can cause various emotional and physical problems to an individual.

Some common symptoms of depression are:

  • Feeling down, hopeless, or tearful most of the time.
  • Losing interest in hobbies, social activities, etc.
  • Trouble focusing, remembering details, or making decisions.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, suicide, or self-harm.

It’s important to note that a person is bound to feel sadness from time to time due to various factors due to humans being emotional animals, however, depression is more than the occasional blues. It is a prolonged stretch of feeling down and despair. Depression can even disrupt daily functioning and life.

Studies show that acupuncture has emerged as a promising non-pharmacological treatment for reducing depressive symptoms.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine. It belongs to the area of Chinese traditional medicine that has been practiced for thousands of years. It involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body, known as acupuncture points or acupoints, to stimulate energy flow and promote balance within the body.

The fundamental rule of acupuncture is based on the concept of Qi (pronounced as “chee”), or vital energy, flowing through channels or pathways in the body known as meridians.

According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, when the flow of Qi is disrupted or blocked, it can lead to imbalances in the body, manifesting as pain, illness, or other health problems. By inserting needles into specific acupoints along the meridians, acupuncture aims to restore the smooth flow of Qi and promote harmony within the body.

Acupuncture needles are typically thin, solid, and made of stainless steel. Depending on the targeted acupoint and the condition being treated, they are inserted into the skin at varying depths. Acupuncture needles are usually left in place for a short period, ranging from a few minutes to half an hour, during which the patient may experience sensations such as tingling, warmth, or a dull ache.

Types of Acupuncture

Some of the common types of acupuncture are:

  • Traditional Chinese Acupuncture: This is the most well-known form of acupuncture and is based on traditional Chinese medicine principles.
  • Japanese Acupuncture: Japanese acupuncture typically involves a more gentle and superficial needling technique as compared to traditional Chinese acupuncture. It focuses more on palpation to identify reaction points in the body.
  • Korean Acupuncture: It shares similarities with Chinese and Japanese methods, but is unlike due to the emphasis on hand acupuncture and cupping.
  • Auricular Acupuncture: Commonly known as ‘ear acupuncture’, it focuses on stimulating specific points on the outer ear that correspond to different organs and systems in the body.
  • Scalp Acupuncture: Scalp acupuncture involves needling specific points on the scalp to treat neurological conditions.
  • Electroacupuncture: This involves attaching electrodes to acupuncture needles to deliver a mild electric current to the acupuncture points. This enhances the therapeutic effects by increasing stimulation and promoting the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins.

Effects of Acupuncture on Depression

Acupuncture aims to promote health and well-being by stimulating the acupoints. If an individual suffering from depression opts to undergo acupuncture as an alternative treatment for depression, he/she may feel the following effects:

Neurotransmitter Regulation

Acupuncture has been shown to affect the levels and activity of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which play key roles in mood regulation. Acupuncture may help regulate mood and alleviate symptoms of depression by modulating the release and uptake of these neurotransmitters.

Endorphin Release

Acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins, that is – natural pain-relieving and mood-enhancing chemicals, that the body releases. Endorphins promote feelings of relaxation, well-being, and euphoria, which can overcome the feelings of sadness, anxiety, and despair associated with depression.

Stress Reduction

Acupuncture helps reduce levels of cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone, and activates the body’s relaxation response. This helps alleviate symptoms of depression, such as tension, irritability, and sleep disturbances.

Placebo Effect and Therapeutic Relationship

The therapeutic relationship between the acupuncturist and the patient, as well as the ritual and context of acupuncture treatment, may also contribute to its effectiveness in treating depression. The sense of care, attention, and support provided during acupuncture sessions can have a powerful placebo effect, leading to improvements in mood and well-being.

Advantages of Acupuncture

While depression often responds well to medication and therapy, about one-third of people with the condition have treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Because TRD is hard to treat, people may want to try alternative therapies.

Here are some reasons why one might choose acupuncture over medication for depression:

Fewer Side Effects

Acupuncture, when compared to medication, has very few side effects. Antidepressant medications can cause a range of adverse reactions such as nausea, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, drowsiness, and agitation. Acupuncture can prove to be a better option for those people who are sensitive to medications.

Non Drug Treatment

Some people may prefer not to consume medications due to the fear of getting addicted or having health problems. Acupuncture is a great savior in such cases, as it involves no drug intake.

Complementary Therapy

Acupuncture can be used as a complementary therapy alongside other treatments for depression, such as psychotherapy, lifestyle modifications, and self-care practices. It can enhance the effectiveness of conventional therapies and provide additional support.

Long-Term Wellness

Acupuncture aims to address the underlying imbalances and root causes of depression, rather than just masking symptoms. By promoting balance and harmony within the body, mind, and spirit, acupuncture supports long-term wellness and resilience.

When to Avoid Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is considered safe for most people if performed by a qualified and experienced practitioner, however, there are certain situations in which acupuncture may not be appropriate or may need to be approached with caution. Like-

Pregnancy

Pregnant women should consult their doctor before undergoing acupuncture. Furthermore, some acupuncture points are prohibited from being used when a pregnant woman undergoes acupuncture as they may stimulate uterine contractions.

Bleeding Disorders

Individuals suffering from blood disorders such as hemophilia or those taking blood-thinning medications may be at increased risk of bleeding or bruising from acupuncture needle insertion. Acupuncture should be avoided or used with caution in these individuals to minimize the risk.

Skin Infections

Acupuncture involves inserting needles into the skin, and individuals with skin infections, open wounds, or lesions at the acupuncture sites may be at increased risk of infection or complications. Acupuncture should be avoided in areas of the body affected by skin conditions.

Sensitivity to Metals

Some individuals may have allergies or sensitivities to metals such as stainless steel, which is commonly used in acupuncture needles. Such individuals should avoid undergoing acupuncture.

It is necessary to take medical advice before starting acupuncture so that all concerns about medical conditions are discussed properly.

A licensed acupuncturist will also conduct a thorough evaluation and consultation to determine whether acupuncture is a suitable treatment option for the patient.

What to Keep in Mind During Acupuncture?

During an acupuncture session, the following things should be kept in mind to ensure a safe and secure session:

Choosing a Professional

Select a licensed and experienced acupuncturist who has received training from an accredited institution and is certified by a recognized professional organization. This ensures that you receive treatment from a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner who follows safety and ethical standards.

Proper Communication

It is important to note that, letting the acupuncturist know about medical conditions, ongoing medications, and problems is a must. This enables the person to use the method effectively without any major problems.

Attire

One should wear loose and flowy clothing so that the acupuncturist can have easy access to body parts. The individual must also feel comfortable in what they wear. Apart from these, tight clothing and heavy jewellery should be avoided as they may cause interference during the session.

Calm Mind

Individuals should focus on keeping their minds calm during the session. This can be achieved by practicing mindfulness techniques or deep breathing. Listening to music can also help. It is necessary to stay relaxed during acupuncture.

Mindfulness

Being mindful of the needle sensations is important. One may feel warmth, tingling, etc. during the session which is a positive result that indicates that the acupoints are successfully being stimulated. However, if any sharp pain or discomfort is felt, it should immediately be reported to the acupuncturist.

Staying Hydrated

Keeping the body hydrated is essential as it helps the body naturally heal itself. One should consume plenty of water before and after the session.

Alcohol and caffeine should be avoided immediately before or after acupuncture, as these substances may interfere with treatment effectiveness.

Avoiding Strenuous Activity

Tiring physical activities such as weight-lifting, etc. should be avoided immediately before and after an acupuncture session as it may interfere with the body’s natural healing ability. However, gentle activities like – walking, yoga, etc. are good options to assist in healing.

Monitoring Response

One should keep a check on their symptoms and body reactions after an acupuncture session. It may take several sessions to notice significant improvements, so being patient and consistent with the acupuncture treatment plan is necessary.

Therapies that can be used with Acupuncture

Acupuncture can be used alongside various other therapies to help manage depression. Here are some of the options:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. It can help individuals with depression develop coping strategies and improve their mood.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

MBSR combines mindfulness meditation and yoga to help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and emotions. It can be beneficial for managing stress, anxiety, and depression.

Exercise Therapy

Regular physical activity has been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. Activities such as walking, jogging, swimming, or yoga can complement acupuncture treatment for depression.

Nutritional Therapy

A balanced diet rich in nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and magnesium can support mental health and alleviate symptoms of depression. Nutritional therapy can be used alongside acupuncture to promote overall well-being.

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, involves exposure to artificial light to regulate mood and sleep patterns. It can be particularly helpful for individuals with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs during specific seasons.

Sleep Hygiene

Improving sleep quality and maintaining a regular sleep schedule can have a positive impact on mood and mental health. Sleep hygiene practices, such as creating a comfortable sleep environment and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, can help strengthen the effects of acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture FAQs

Is acupuncture safe?

When performed by a trained and qualified practitioner, acupuncture is generally considered safe. The needles used are thin and sterile, reducing the risk of infection or injury.

What conditions can acupuncture treat?

Acupuncture is commonly used to treat various physical and mental health conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.

Does acupuncture hurt?

While some people may experience mild discomfort or a sensation of heaviness or tingling at the acupoints, acupuncture is generally NOT painful. Some people even report feeling soothed during acupuncture.

How many sessions of acupuncture are needed?

It depends on an individual’s condition, severity of symptoms, and overall health. Some people may experience significant improvement after just a few sessions, while others may require ongoing treatment for chronic conditions.

Is acupuncture covered by insurance?

Some health insurance plans may cover acupuncture treatment, depending on the policy and the reason for seeking treatment. It’s advisable to check with your insurance provider to determine coverage eligibility.

References

Virtual Psychiatrist
Fact Checked by
- Dr. Gundu Reddy
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