Can Acupuncture treat depression?
- Posted on: Oct 23 2019
Can Acupuncture Treat Depression?
A growing number of people are seeking alternatives to antidepressant medications, and new research suggests that acupuncture may be a promising option.
In acupuncture, a practitioner inserts needles into the skin at points of the body thought to correspond with specific organs. Western research suggests the needles may activate natural painkillers in the brain; in traditional Chinese medicine, the process is believed to improve functioning by correcting energy blocks or imbalances in the organs.
A study published last fall in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that electroacupuncture- in which a mild electric current is transmitted through the needles-was just as effective as fluoxetine (the generic name for Prozac) in reducing symptoms of depression. For six weeks, patients underwent either electoacupuncture five times weekly or a standard daily dose of fluoxetine. The researchers, the majority of whom specialize in traditional Chinese medicine, assessed participants’ symptoms every two weeks and tracked their levels of glial cell line- derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), a neuroprotective protein. Previous studies have found lower amounts of GDNF among patients with major depression disorder, and in other research levels of the protein rose after treatment with antidepressant medication. After six weeks, both groups showed a similar improvement in symptoms, and both treatments restored GDNF to a normal concentration. But the acupuncture began to work faster, reducing symptoms more dramatically at weeks two and four than the drug did.
…But Will the Results Hold Up?
Strong studies should include a convincing control group, account for the placebo effect and be properly blinded so that neither the clinicians nor the participants know whether they are taking part in real or sham treatment. The results should also be successfully replicated in labs at numerous locations. Acupuncture researchers have struggled to comply for several reasons.
Placebo effect: One major hurdle is crafting a good fake acupuncture technique to act as a control condition. The first study described above did not attempt to use a true control, so it is impossible to know whether the needle placement, the electric current or some other aspect of the treatment accounted for the results. Further, acupuncture is associated with a robust placebo effect- simply being seen and touched by a practitioner makes most people feel significantly better, which could make acupuncture seem more effective than it really is. On the flip side, this large placebo component can overshadow a small but real difference between the treatment and placebo groups, potentially masking acupuncture’s true usefulness.
Blinding: Another concern is the difficulty in creating a double-blinded experiment. Observers and participants alike can skew the results when they know whether they are participating in a real treatment rather than a sham procedure. The acupuncturist involved would almost certainly know whether he or she is engaged in the real thing, and that knowledge could subtly alter the acupuncturist’s behavior. The first study above was partially blinded, in that the doctors who evaluated the patients’ symptoms did not know what treatment they had received.
Acupuncture clearly has its benefits in treating many conditions (IE- back pain, neck pain, and headaches for example), but acupuncture may or may not have benefits beyond placebo effect in treating depression.
Posted in: Acupuncture