Acupuncture for depression

Depression is widely experienced in our communities. In clinical depression, people report a lack of interest in life and activities which they otherwise normally enjoy. This can be accompanied by other symptoms including weight loss, over-eating, feelings of uselessness, sleep disturbance, self neglect and social withdrawal, insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much), loss of energy, low self esteem and poor concentration.

Acupuncture has a long history of use in China and Japan. Traditional Chinese medicine theory describes a state of health maintained by a balance of energy in the body. Acupuncture involves the insertion of fine needles into different parts of the body to correct the imbalance of energy in the body. There are a range of styles of acupuncture from traditional/classical acupuncture, auricular acupuncture, trigger point acupuncture, and single point acupuncture. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Classical Acupuncture are based on theoretical concepts of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements and explain disease and physiological function. A westernised medical application of acupuncture involves the use of acupuncture using trigger points, segmental points and commonly used formula points. Medical acupuncture may involve the application of acupuncture based on the principles of neurophysiology and anatomy, rather than TCM principles and philosophy. Auricular therapy involves the use of the ear to make a diagnosis and subsequent needling to points on the ear.

There are studies indicating a preference for treatment with self-help and complementary therapies for depression. Thirty trials, and 2812 participants were included in the review and meta-analysis, however there was insufficient evidence that acupuncture can assist with the management of depression.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found insufficient evidence to recommend the use of acupuncture for people with depression. The results are limited by the high risk of bias in the majority of trials meeting inclusion criteria.

Read the full abstract...

There is interest from the community in the use of self help and complementary therapies for depression. This review examined the currently available evidence supporting the use of acupuncture to treat depression.


To examine the effectiveness and adverse effects of acupuncture in the treatment for depression.

Search strategy: 

The following databases were searched: CCDAN-CTR, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE (1966 to Dec 2008), EMBASE (1980 to Dec 2008), PSYCINFO (1874 to Dec 2008), the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness (DARE), CINAHL (1980 to Dec 2008), Wan Fang database (to Dec 2008). The following terms were used: depression, depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder and acupuncture.

Selection criteria: 

Inclusion criteria included all published and unpublished randomised controlled trials comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture, no treatment, pharmacological treatment, other structured psychotherapies (cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy or counselling), or standard care. The following modes of treatment were included: acupuncture, electro acupuncture or laser acupuncture. The participants included adult men and women with depression defined by clinical state description, or diagnosed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), Research Diagnostic Criteria (RDC), International Classification of Disease (ICD) or the Criteria for Classification and Diagnosis of Mental Diseases CCMD-3-R.

Data collection and analysis: 

Meta-analyses were performed using relative risk for dichotomous outcomes and standard mean differences for continuous outcomes, with 95% confidence intervals. Primary outcomes were reduction in the severity of depression, measured by self rating scales, or by clinician rated scales and an improvement in depression defined as remission versus no remission.

Main results: 

This review is an update and now contains data from 30 studies. Following recent searches, 23 new studies have been added and a further 11 trials were excluded (due to suboptimal doses of medication, no clinical outcomes, insufficient reporting). Thirty trials with 2,812 participants are included in the meta-analysis.

There was a high risk of bias in the majority of trials. There was insufficient evidence of a consistent beneficial effect from acupuncture compared with a wait list control or sham acupuncture control. Two trials found acupuncture may have an additive benefit when combined with medication compared with medication alone. A subgroup of participants with depression as a co-morbidity experienced a reduction in depression with manual acupuncture compared with SSRIs (RR 1.66, 95%CI 1.03, 2.68) (three trials, 94 participants). The majority of trials compared manual and electro acupuncture with medication and found no effect between groups.