Mention acupuncture and many people think of therapy for physical aches and pains…but what if the problem is the persistent inner ache of sadness? The ancient healing technique of acupuncture also is used as a complementary treatment for various types of depression—including the notoriously tricky bipolar disorder (manic-depressive disorder), in which patients cycle between deep depression and manic episodes.

Though Western-style research studies on the topic are somewhat limited, clinical trials have reported significant findings. For instance, here is evidence for acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating…

  • Major depression. A study published in Psychological Science found that 70% of women with mild-to-moderate depression who underwent 12 acupuncture sessions experienced at least a 50% reduction in symptoms—results comparable to the success rates of antidepressant medication, but without the drugs’ risk for side effects. Other studies have shown greater improvement in patients treated with acupuncture alone or with acupuncture plus antidepressants than in patients treated with antidepressants alone.
  • Bipolar disorder. In two studies from Purdue University, all bipolar patients who received eight to 12 weeks of acupuncture sessions (in addition to their usual medication) showed improvement in their symptoms. This was true regardless of whether they entered the study during a phase of depression or a phase of mania.
  • Depression during pregnancy. In a study published in Journal of Affective Disorders, 69% of pregnant participants got significant relief after 12 sessions of acupuncture in which depressive symptoms were specifically addressed…in a control group that received massage therapy instead of acupuncture, only 32% of patients improved. A similar study in Obstetrics & Gynecology reported comparable results.
  • To discuss acupuncture’s benefits in greater detail, I contacted Daisy Dong, LAc, OMD, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in private practice in Denver and a professor at Southwest Acupuncture College. She told me that for patients with various types of depression, acupuncture treatment generally brings increased energy…greater calmness…reduced anxiety…more positive thoughts and fewer negative ones…and improved sleep. For bipolar patients, acupuncture also helps to stabilize moods.

    Dr. Dong also noted that, when performed by a qualified professional, acupuncture has no adverse effects other than perhaps mild temporary discomfort at the needle sites. In contrast, antidepressant medications carry a risk for side effects including nausea, weight gain, fatigue and sexual problems…in bipolar patients, drugs must be very carefully managed to avoid triggering mania…and during pregnancy, there are concerns about potential negative effects of drugs on the fetus.

    If you decide to give acupuncture a try: The first visit generally takes about an hour, with subsequent sessions lasting 30 to 45 minutes depending on the complexity of the case. Depression patients typically receive one or two treatments per week. Some people notice improvement after the first treatment, but for many people, it takes several treatments before results are seen—and sustained improvement generally requires about 10 sessions, Dr. Dong said.

    Acupuncture treatment for depression costs the same as acupuncture for other ailments—about $60 to $120 per session, depending on your location and the individual practitioner. Some health insurance policies cover acupuncture, so check your plan.

    If you are taking medication for depression or bipolar disorder: It is very important that you not simply stop taking the drugs on your own even if you start feeling better after beginning acupuncture, Dr. Dong said. Depending on your condition, you may indeed be able to reduce or even discontinue your medication—but this must be done under the supervision of your prescribing physician.

    To find a qualified acupuncturist: Ask your doctor or mental health professional for a referral…talk to friends who have used acupuncture…or check the online databases of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine ( or the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine ( Practitioners’ database profiles may or may not specify the types of conditions they specialize in, but you can phone or check providers’ Web sites to find out whether they treat your type of depression.