Many of my pregnant patients struggling with depression ask about non-medication treatment options. Understandably, there are many concerns and hesitations about taking medication during pregnancy. For women with mild to moderate depressive symptoms, acupuncture is one such treatment alternative.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient Eastern treatment form that seeks to address imbalances in the emotional, psychological, and spiritual worlds of an individual. Using 2,000+ points on the body, the purpose is to balance energy in order to restore health to body and mind. One of the primary advantages of acupuncture is few complications and side effects. In pregnancy, this becomes even more important.
There are several difficult types of acupuncture: manual acupuncture which involves inserting needles as specific acupoints and manually stimulating them; electroacupuncture which involves stimulation with a device; and acupressure, which involves non-penetrating needles or bands.
How does acupuncture work?
The physiological effects of acupuncture are thought to take place through modifications of neuroendocrine and hormonal systems via the hypothalamic pituitary system and cortisol. There are also benefits to the logistics related to acupuncture treatment: consistent appointments with a caring clinician, space for relaxation, and devoted time for self-care.
Does acupuncture work for depression?
There exist many small studies of acupuncture for depression. Many of these are positive, while others do not demonstrate a significant effect. Many are also in Chinese, making translation and interpretation more challenging for Western clinicians. One difficulty in extrapolating from these general studies is the fact that perinatal depression may not behave like other forms of depression. Similarly, acupuncture success is different between genders. And, it can be difficult to study acupuncture systematically because one of the key tasks for a healer is to individualize the treatment for the patient. This is a challenge when you are trying to do a rigorous study where everyone is receiving the same treatment and you are trying to compare it to a placebo.
Does acupuncture work for pregnancy depression?
Research into the efficacy of acupuncture during pregnancy is in the early stages but has been promising. One early pilot study found that women who underwent acupuncture for depression had a 69% reduction in symptoms. This is comparable, for example, to the results with a course of psychotherapy. A follow up study several years later similarly noted a 53% reduction in depression scores and 29% remission of symptoms after an 8 week course of acupuncture.
If you have mild to moderate depression, I recommend exploring acupuncture as a treatment option. For more severe forms of depression, I encourage considering it as a complementary treatment. One important first step is to be certain that you are working with a qualified practitioner, who has expertise in treating perinatal women to ensure that is will be a safe experience.
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Manber, R. et. al. Acupuncture: a promising treatment for depression during pregnancy. 2004. Journal of Affective Disorders 83: 89-95.
Manber, R. et. al. Acupuncture for depression during pregnancy: A randomized controlled trial. 2010. Obstetrics and Gynecology 115: 511.
Wang, H. et. al. Is acupuncture beneficial in depression: A meta-analysis of 8 randomized control trials? 2008. Journal of Affective Disorders 111: 125-134.