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Acupuncture for Anxiety & Depression: Does it Work?

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/20/2022

If you’ve ever said you’d go to extremes to rid yourself of anxiety, you may be on the hook to give acupuncture for anxiety a try.

Mental illness can be extremely difficult to manage, and anyone who has suffered from a mood disorder like depression or a psychiatric disorder like anxiety has certainly had a day where they’ve contemplated how much they’d give up just to make their issues go away.

On a scale of “one” to “telling your ex that they had some good qualities,” a few small needles are probably only a four on the discomfort rating. But why try something uncomfortable like acupuncture? Does acupuncture for anxiety and depression even work?? 

If you’re poking around for information before trying acupuncture, you’ve come to the right place. There are definitely some things you need to know before going. We’ll take a stab at telling you everything you need to know, but let’s start this discussion with the point in mind: will this even work?

What Is Acupuncture?

As you probably already know, acupuncture therapy is a medical treatment in which expert practitioners use needles to stimulate areas of the body. 

Acupuncture is a nonpharmacological treatment, which is just a big phrase for: “doesn’t use Western, largely pharmaceutical-based therapy.” 

Acupuncture is an element of traditional Chinese medicine associated with ideological and philosophical principles of Taoism and Confucianism, and the idea of your body as a place where energy flows.

An acupuncture treatment specialist pierces the skin with small needles in specific places on the body with the intent to cause changes in the physical functions of the body itself that will result in improvements to whatever condition is supposed to be treated.

It’s used for many, many medical purposes — you can easily find examples on the internet of people enlisting the help of acupuncture to treat everything from hair loss to hangovers.

If you have nausea, for instance, you might get a couple needles in specific places on your body (maybe your hand, neck or face), which are believed to be able to relieve anxiety symptoms

Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years in China and elsewhere, and the question isn’t really whether it’s effective, but how do we measure its effectiveness accurately and scientifically. And many people have tried.

So how has western medicine tried to measure acupuncture’s effectiveness? Studies. 

Unfortunately, those studies haven’t been the most well designed. While there have been many attempts to demonstrate the efficacy of acupuncture as an alternative or adjunct treatment for depression, anxiety and other illnesses, there are a lot of problems with our understanding of acupuncture that make quantifying its benefits difficult. 

The most important problem is that we don’t even really understand how it works. 

Scientists continue to explore whether it affects blood pressure or blood flow, or if it releases certain pain management chemicals that have healing benefits. 

Acupuncture might do something even more complex, but meaningful — we just don’t know.

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The Evidence for Acupuncture in Anxiety and Depression Treatment

We just hurled a lot of information at you about acupuncture, and to some people, it may sound more spiritual than scientific. 

To a certain extent, that’s correct. There are far fewer reliable studies that have been conducted with a scientific method in mind to explore the benefits of acupuncture than, say, Prozac®.

But the quality studies we do have show some real promise for acupuncture.

For instance, one small study from 2021 examined the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of anxiety disorders and depression in 60 patients with chronic insomnia. 

They found the role of acupuncture improved sleep from poor quality, sleep efficiency and sleep latency and alleviated symptoms of anxiety and depression in the group.

A much larger 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis of acupuncture for depression examined 29 studies in total, consisting of more than 2,000 patients. 

The studies were conducted over a wide number of years, from 1980 through late 2018, in multiple countries. 

What the review concluded from this data was that acupuncture may be an acceptable adjunct therapy to standards of care like therapy and antidepressants. 

In other words, they didn’t find sufficient evidence to prove it could treat depression on its own, but believed that it could offer benefits alongside more commonly accepted treatments

Studies have also shown that acupuncture can help women in particular with anxiety disorders, major depression and the other associated mental health conditions and medical conditions.

One 2013 review of research found that acupuncture could offer relief to women in a variety of contexts: pregnancy, IVF treatments, substance abuse recovery and in the general population.

The review included data from six separate trials involving 605 women from ages 18 to 71, from several different countries, including the United States, Canada, Brasil, Canada and Norway. 

While the researchers did note that it is still difficult to compile accurate data and draw meaningful conclusions about the efficacy of acupuncture in women for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, the conclusions drawn were interesting.

Acupuncture was particularly effective as a monotherapy for women with major depressive disorder (MDD) and menopausal women and may be effective in relieving the symptoms of anxiety.

Of course, much more research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn, but for now, most scientifically qualitative signs point to “yes.”

Is Acupuncture Really Effective for Anxiety and Depression?

The studies we mentioned demonstrate that acupuncture can be effective in treating conditions like depression and anxiety. The problem is that we don’t really know how effective, in comparison with the likes of therapy and medication.

What we can say is that it doesn’t seem that the risk of acupuncture being harmful appears to be very low. If acupuncture sessions work for your mental health, keep doing it. If you’re considering giving it a try, there’s really no reason not to. 

Alternatives to Acupuncture for Anxiety and Depression

Like meditation and other non-therapeutic, non-pharmacological treatments, it could be the X-factor ingredient in your full management plan for anxiety symptoms or depression symptoms. 

But it’s also probably best to stick to tried and true methods of treating anxiety and depression, which include:

Antidepressants

Medication can be an effective way of dealing with depression and anxiety in patients. Your healthcare provider will likely point you toward selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are considered first-line treatments because of their performance in clinical studies. 

These medications are considered safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in reducing the extremes of mood created in certain mental health conditions by a brain with a dysfunctional serotonin supply. 

A healthcare professional can help you get a prescription after identifying the right type of medication for your needs.

Therapy 

Therapy and, in particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a proven treatment for mental health and mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

In CBT, you learn to identify unhealthy patterns of anxious or depressive thoughts, sometimes called intrusive thoughts, and reject them, rather than letting them dictate your reality. 

Studies show that, over time, this can help you reduce your anxiety attacks, cut back on your depressive episodes and improve your mental health overall. 

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Acupuncture for Anxiety and Depression: The Final Word

For people with mental health issues, acupuncture may provide a number of benefits against adverse effects of anxiety and depression. Whether you’ll see those benefits isn’t something we can predict. 

What we can predict, however, is that you’re going to have the most success in treating depressive disorders and anxiety disorders not alone, but with the help of a healthcare professional. 

A healthcare provider (like those you can find through our mental health resources) can help you craft a unique plan of treatment for anxiety disorders and the management for your mental health issues. 

That plan may include therapy for anxiety, medication for anxiety or lifestyle changes, or maybe even acupuncture

We’re not trying to needle you about it, hers offers an online therapy platform where you can connect with mental health professionals until you find just the right fit, all from the convenience of your home. 

If you’re ready to get to the point of treatment, reach out to a professional today.

8 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Acupuncture. MedlinePlus. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://medlineplus.gov/acupuncture.html.
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  4. Sniezek DP, Siddiqui IJ. Acupuncture for Treating Anxiety and Depression in Women: A Clinical Systematic Review. Med Acupunct. 2013 Jun;25(3):164-172. doi: 10.1089/acu.2012.0900. PMID: 24761171; PMCID: PMC3689180. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3689180/.
  5. Liu C, Zhao Y, Qin S, Wang X, Jiang Y, Wu W. Randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for anxiety and depression in patients with chronic insomnia. Ann Transl Med. 2021 Sep;9(18):1426. doi: 10.21037/atm-21-3845. PMID: 34733978; PMCID: PMC8506741. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8506741/.
  6. Armour M, Smith CA, Wang LQ, Naidoo D, Yang GY, MacPherson H, Lee MS, Hay P. Acupuncture for Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Clin Med. 2019 Jul 31;8(8):1140. doi: 10.3390/jcm8081140. PMID: 31370200; PMCID: PMC6722678. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6722678/.
  7. Chand SP, Kuckel DP, Huecker MR. Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Updated 2022 Sep 9. In: StatPearls Internet. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470241/.
  8. Chu A, Wadhwa R. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Updated 2022 May 8. In: StatPearls Internet. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554406/.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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