Acupuncture and the treatment of depression

Melanie Cherng, Licensed Acupuncturist MAOM, Eastway Wellness (Brookline, Wellesley, Norwood, Danvers and Boston)

Sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Eastern Harmony program


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 10 U.S. adults report depression.[i] Feeling sadness from time to time is part of the normal range of human feelings. But for those experiencing depression, the sadness interferes with daily life and can persist for more than two weeks at a time.[ii]

While there are many contributing factors that lead to major depression, studies have shown it greatly impacts an area of the brain that regulates mood. Stress, which plays a role in depression, may also be a key factor.

For most people with depression, traditional treatment (a combination of medicine such as antidepressants and counseling) has been very effective in decreasing symptoms and improving quality of life. However, some people with depression may prefer or want to try alternative therapies alone or in addition to traditional treatment.  It is important to speak with your health care provider before starting a new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment, or if you have questions regarding your medical condition.

Recent studies have shown the effectiveness of alternative therapies such as acupuncture in the treatment of depression. They suggest that acupuncture helps people with major depression feel significant relief after receiving acupuncture for a period of time. A study published by the University of York showed that patients who suffer from depression may benefit more from acupuncture or counseling alongside their usual care (antidepressants), compared to usual care alone.[iii] In 2012, a research study conducted at the School of Chinese Medicine at the University in Hong Kong involving electro-acupuncture stimulation of the scalp demonstrated that those who received this treatment showed greater improvement in both clinical depression assessment and self-rating depression scale.[iv] While more research and investigation is always important, these findings suggest options to supplement current treatment.

Before patients suffering from depression arrive at the doorstep of an acupuncturist, they often have some basic questions such as how depression is understood in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), what a typical treatment involves and how long a course of treatment will take before they feel improvement.

According to Chinese medicine, the root causes of depression can vary greatly from case to case. Sometimes the source of depression is a deficiency, either in “Qi” (life force energy), “Yang” (life force energy that is more active) or blood. Other times the root issue stems from stagnation or blockages in the Qi, either from lack of physical movement or emotional blockages most often associated with the liver. If deficiency is present, acupuncturists stimulate points that nourish either “Qi”, “Yang” or blood. If stagnation is present then points that move “Qi” and smooth the liver will be stimulated. Either way, acupuncture points that calm the mind are always used to help bring a state of calm. Chinese herbal remedies and supplements are often used to reinforce treatments.

Treatment plans will vary from patient to patient, but most will begin with two to three treatments per week for three weeks, and then as symptoms improve, visits are decreased. Patients should start to experience some relief by the second or third treatment and should feel a significant shift in mood around the tenth treatment.

For more information about depression, visit

and click on Health Education. To learn about Harvard Pilgrim’s Eastern Harmony program, which blends health and wellness practices of Eastern and Western medicine, please call 617-509-8015. Call Harvard Pilgrim’s behavioral health partner, Optum’s Behavioral Health Access Center at 888-777-4742 for confidential referrals. If you have an emergency or urgent concern, you can speak to an Optum/UBH Care Advocate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even on weekends and holidays.

Melanie Cherng or Eastway Wellness can be reached at (617) 792-2136, (781) 688-0138 and


The content of this article represents the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Always consult your health care provider before starting a new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment, or if you have questions regarding your medical condition.


[i] “An Estimated 1 in 10 U.S. Adults Report Depression.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 Mar. 2011. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.

[ii] “Major Depressive Disorder Among Adults.” NIMH RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014. <>.

[iii] “Studies: Acupuncture Effective For Depression.” Studies: Acupuncture Effective For Depression. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2014. <>.

[iv] IBID

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