Richard G. Petty, MD

Acupuncture and Depression

I have been using acupuncture for over 25 years and one of the reasons for doing my advanced training in China was to examine its use in neurological and psychiatric disorders.

It was interesting to discover that even in hospitals specializing in traditional Chinese medicine, the doctors usually used conventional antidepressants and antipsychotics rather than acupuncture, although I had seen many Western acupuncturists claim that they could treat depression.

My own experience with treating acupuncture has been disappointing. By contrast, it is often very good indeed for anxiety, and I have shown many people how to follow up with simple acupressure if they experience anxiety or panic.

There is new research that seems to endorse my lack of success in treating depression and why the Chinese doctors used Western medicine.

There had been a number of small studies (e.g. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.) of acupuncture in depression that had shown promise, as well as some huge Chinese studies that had claimed good results.

One of the problems with much of the Chinese research is that it is normally done without control groups and with very broad criteria. Many only rate whether someone is “cured,” “much better” or “no better.”

Despite the promise of the early studies, three recent reviews (1. 2. 3.) suggested that the evidence for acupuncture in depression was inconclusive.

This new study was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in November of this year and involved 151 patients with Major Depressive Disorder. The study ran for four years. This was a well-conducted clinical trial by researchers who had originally found some promising results in a pilot study (Allen JBJ, Schnyer RN, Hitt SK. The efficacy of acupuncture in the treatment of major depression in women. Psychological Science 1998; 9: 397-401). Although well tolerated, the research failed to support the use of acupuncture as a single therapy for depression.

This is important: depression carries an appreciable mortality and morbidity and there are real ethical problems about withholding treatments that have been shown to work.

It also does not mean that acupuncture has no place in the treatment of depression: it may be a useful adjunctive treatment – particularly if the individual has comorbid anxiety – and it may help with treating the side effects of conventional medicines. There is also another important point: we need to be sure that we are measuring the right thing when doing studies on acupuncture: the Western doctor may want to see if depression gets better. The acupuncturist may be more interested in improving the overall well being of the individual as well as helping an individual’s search for meaning

Regular readers will remember that last month I commented on some promising research on the use of qigong in depression. Why the different results from the different studies? There are many schools of acupuncture, t’ai chi ch’uan and qigong, as there are many different medicines for depression. One of the difficulties in the critical evaluation of these forms of treatment is that we have to assess the effectiveness not just of acupuncture, but of different schools of acupuncture and sometimes of different practitioners: a daunting but not impossible task. Not only are there many school in China, there are also Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese variants of traditional acupuncture, Western acupuncture and electro- and laser acupuncture. We use clinical observations to guide us to research the most promising types of intervention, whether they are forms of acupuncture, herbal remedies, homeopathy or anything else.

My "job" is to bring you the best and most rigorous research so that you can make decisions about what is most likely to help you.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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