Acupuncture as Good as Psychotherapy for Depression, Study Finds
In a study published in September 2013 in the journal PLOS Medicine, a team of British researchers explored the potential of acupuncture as a treatment for depression. The members of this team found that acupuncture provides just as much benefit in depression treatment as various forms of psychotherapy.
According to the terms and concepts used in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture achieves its effects when needles inserted into the body change the flow of “chi,” an energy that powers the body’s functions and provides good health when in proper balance. In terms of the concepts used in Western medicine, the technique achieves its effects when needles inserted into the body physically alter the function of certain muscles or nerves, or the connective tissue that helps keep the body’s structures in place. Specific changes associated with the use of acupuncture needles include a more rapid flow of blood in the circulatory system and an increase in the production of endorphins and other built-in painkillers.
While Eastern practitioners of acupuncture often rely strictly on the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, Western practitioners commonly take both a traditional and modern approach to their work. At the start of an acupuncture session, a qualified acupuncturist will gather information about your particular symptoms and daily activities, and in many cases he or she will also assess certain aspects of your physical appearance and function. During the main part of the session, the acupuncturist will insert up to 20 extremely thin needles into strategic areas of the body, manipulate the needles lightly by hand or through the application of heat or a pulsing electrical current, then remove the needles after roughly 10 to 20 minutes of treatment.
Depression Treatment Basics
Doctors typically treat diagnosed cases of depression with medications called antidepressants, specific forms of psychotherapy or an integrated program of antidepressants and psychotherapy. The most commonly used antidepressants in the U.S. are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). The two most commonly used forms of psychotherapy are a family of techniques known collectively as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and an approach called interpersonal therapy (IPT). Other treatments sometimes prescribed for depressed people include the brain function-altering techniques called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).
Acupuncture’s Potential Benefits
In the study published in PLOS Medicine, researchers from the University of York, Hull York Medical School and the Centre for Health Economics compared the relative effectiveness of three 12-week courses of depression treatment: antidepressants alone, antidepressants combined with psychotherapy and antidepressants combined with acupuncture. Of the study participants, 151 received antidepressants alone, while two separate groups of 302 participants received either a combination of antidepressants and psychotherapy or a combination of antidepressants and acupuncture. The researchers measured the prominence of depression symptoms in each group of patients at the end of treatment, as well as six months later and nine months later.
Upon examining their findings, the researchers concluded that, after three months of treatment, the patients who received a combination of acupuncture and antidepressants had lower levels of depression than the patients who received only antidepressants. In addition, they concluded that the patients who received a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants also had lower levels of depression than the patients who received only antidepressants. When compared directly to each other, the acupuncture/antidepressant combination provided the same amount of treatment benefit as the psychotherapy/antidepressant combination.
The authors of the study published in PLOS Medicine note that the patients who received only antidepressants saw a gradual reduction in their symptoms over time. As a result of this improvement, at the six- and nine-month follow-ups, antidepressants alone provided just as much benefit as either the acupuncture/antidepressant combination or the psychotherapy/antidepressant combination. The study’s authors also note that they examined only the effectiveness of treatment in people with relatively severe forms of depression. For this reason, they don’t know how much benefit acupuncture or psychotherapy provides for people affected by milder forms of depressive illness. In addition, they did not determine which specific features of acupuncture and psychotherapy make these approaches so valuable in severe depression treatment.