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Treating Depression with Acupuncture

A new pilot study by researchers at the University of Arizona confirmed that acupuncture is a promising treatment for major depression in women. 

Depression is extremely common in the US and is among the ten most frequently reported medical conditions. (1) About half the people who seek treatment for depression are not helped by psychotherapy and medication or withdraw from treatment too early. Of those who recover, more than one third relapse within eighteen months. This suggests that alternative treatment may be very helpful for people who suffer from depression.

Thirty eight subjects who participated in the study were adult women diagnosed with mild to moderate depression. They were treated with acupuncture according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, each for her own specific pattern of symptoms. They were treated twice per week for one month and once per week for a second month, for a total of twelve sessions. After completion of acupuncture treatment for depression, 70% of women experienced at least a 50% reduction of symptoms, results comparable to the success rate of psychotherapy and medication.

This study is important because it is the first randomized, controlled, double-blinded study of acupuncture’s effectiveness for depression reported in the Western scientific literature. The study design compared the results of treatment for three groups. Specific treatment involved acupuncture treatment for symptoms of depression. Non-specific treatment involved acupuncture for symptoms not clearly related to depression. The third group was wait-listed for eight weeks. Both placebo or control groups then received treatment specific for depression. Patients who received the specific treatment improved more during the eight weeks than patients who received the non-specific treatment. For this small sample size, the comparison between the specific treatment and the wait list condition was not statistically significant. Researchers plan to investigate the benefits of maintenance treatments for depression, acupuncture treatment for more severe chronic depression, specific treatment for non-responders to conventional treatment, and specific treatment for those who cannot tolerate side effects of medications.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Alternative Medicine. The results were published in the September 1998 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, as “The Efficacy of Acupuncture in the Treatment of Major Depression in Women.” The authors were John J.B. Allen, Rosa N. Schnyer, and Sabrina K. Hitt.

More information is available from the web site for the American Psychological Society, www.psychologicalscience.org. Reprints of the study are available from one of the authors at jallen@u.arizona.edu. 
His postal address is:

The University of Arizona 
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences 
Department of Psychology 
PO Box 210068 
Tucson, Arizona  85721-0068

(1) Eisenberg, D.M., Kessler R.C., Foster C., Norlock F.E., Calkins D.R., & Delbanco T.L. (1993). Unconventional medicine in the United States: Prevalence, costs, and patterns of use. New England Journal of Medicine, 328, 246-252

text copyright @1998 by
Meredith St. John,
Boston, MA