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Ask an expert - neuro and psycho logical - Depression

3 questions

Q:  I am suffering with bad depression & anxiety related to body dismorphia. I have had it since I was 18 & I am 63 now. It has been triggered again
recently by a tragic loss. I took antidepressants for 2 years and managed to come off them gradually and have been okay until a month ago. Could acupuncture help with my symptoms?

A:  As you can imagine we have been asked about both anxiety and depression a number of times, and a typical, if rather long answer, was:

Is acupuncture any good for relieving depression or anxiety?

A:  We have produced factsheets on both of these areas:
which give some cause for optimism, as does a heavily publicised research trial by BAcC member Hugh Macpherson and colleagues published very recently

There is also a link on our home page today to a new study about anxiety

However, we could do worse than reproduce the text of a piece we provided for Anxiety UK some months ago.



Anxiety is more than just being anxious. Just as migraine sufferers get righteously indignant when someone claims to be a fellow sufferer but can still get to work, eat and stand the daylight, so anxiety sufferers know that they bear only the slightest resemblance to people who feel a bit nervous or have ‘butterflies in the tummy.’ Clinical anxiety is a crippling affliction which can sometimes defy all of the medications and talking therapies that someone can throw at it.

Why, then, has acupuncture been found to be successful in treating it? The main reason is that in conventional medicine, there is no single treatment for each sufferer as each person has differing symptoms. However, in traditional acupuncture every patient is considered to be unique, and this means that the practitioners will be looking and listening very carefully to everything that the patient says to establish a diagnosis and find the specific keys to unlocking the patterns of the symptoms the patient is suffering. They will aim to identify the imbalances which cause the symptoms of anxiety, not just treat the symptoms themselves. This whole ‘package’ – taking the patient’s individual story seriously and giving them time to tell it, trying to hone precisely the diagnosis, and selecting the optimum way to use the least needles to achieve the greatest effect – has been found to be very effective.

The theory of traditional acupuncture is very straightforward. The free flow and internal balance of energy (Qi) is seen in eastern medicine as essential for good health. Any prolonged exposure to extremes or intense situations, be they physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, will cause the flow and balance to be affected. This disruption in balance then ripples through the whole system, causing symptoms which sometimes bear little apparent relation to the underlying causes. An acupuncturist’s skill lies in making sense of seemingly unconnected symptoms and understanding the unique nature of someone’s energies in such a way as to restore balance. A treatment plan may simply involve needles and moxibustion, the use of a warming herb, and tui na, a form of traditional Chinese massage, but can extend to address issues in someone’s diet, their exercise patterns and their lifestyle.

People sometimes ask why, if acupuncture is so successful, there isn’t much research to back up its claims and make it more freely available within conventional care. A major reason for this is the unique nature of treatment which resists putting people in pigeon holes and which changes as the person’s balance begins to improve. Both of these confound attempts to organise research according to western models where a named condition receives a single treatment and all other variables are taken out of the equation. In Chinese medicine the variables are called patients!

Where do our patients with anxiety come from? Word of mouth still remains the most common and most reliable form of referral, and more people have had acupuncture than you think. If you ask around your support groups you are almost certain to find someone who has tried acupuncture and found that it works. Perhaps this time it’s your turn!

People also usually want to know whether the treatment will ‘stick’, whether they have to keep on having acupuncture. Some don’t – a single course of treatment can set them on a good path which, as long as their life remains well-balanced and relatively stress-free, means that they will stay anxiety-free. Many, though, like to keep ‘tuned up’, and realise that spending a fraction of what they spend on keeping their cars roadworthy keeps the driver in good shape too.

As always, though, we still think that the best advice we can give is that you contact a BAcC member local to you to see if acupuncture would be appropriate for your own unique circumstances. 

We think that this covers most of the basics. Your case is obviously a little different, with a much more specific cause, and it also appears that you have a strategy from previous episodes which works, albeit slowly. We do not think that there would be any disadvantage to trying acupuncture treatment, and it may well be a suitable alternative to medication. However, if medical advice is to proceed with medication again there is no harm in having acupuncture at the same time; the two systems of medicine are like apples and oranges, so there is little or no chance that either will interfere with the effects of each other.

A:  As our factsheet shows please click here


there is some evidence that acupuncture can be used alongside or instead of medication for the treatment of depression, but the results are not yet conclusive enough for us to be able to make any claims for its use as a stand-alone treatment.


Indeed, we are aware that depression is not simply a shopping list of items (loss of appetite, poor sleep, etc etc) which make up the clinical definition but usually a complex problem which spreads across all areas of someone's life, and probably means that they are going to need more than one form of support. 


The one advantage that acupuncture has is that Chinese medicine was very clear about the interaction of body mind and spirit, and saw the functions of the Organs (always capitalised to differentiate the term from the western concept of an organ) as operating on all levels. When a patient visits a practitioner, therefore, and describes a complex array of symptoms, physical, mental and emotional, from a Chinese medicine perspective these can often make sense and offer treatment possibilities as a whole, rather than requiring a tablet for x, another tablet for y, and perhaps counselling and psychotherapy.


As we said, though, depression is a complex problem, and although many of our members have counselling and talking therapy skills, the majority are not qualified to a professional standard, and we think that a patient should always be encouraged to explore this as an option alongside their treatment if the problems are complex. The same applies to medications. Many of these are essential to enable people to function well enough to hold down jobs and maintain their relationships and friendships. Our members will not encourage people to stop taking their medications, and can adjust their treatment to ensure that the effects of dealing with the medications on a physical level do not add to the problems someone has.


In Chinese medicine, though, each person is seen as unique, and the best advice we can offer is that you visit a BAcC member local to you to see what specific help they might be able to offer. 'Depression' is such a broad term that offering general advice is difficult. It is far easier to offer advice when someone can hear what exactly makes you feel depressed and tries to get a sense of what it is that actually makes you recognise that you are depressed. For every sufferer this will be unique and different, and may have an impact on how helpful acupuncture treatment may be.   



From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, people who label themselves as 'sufferers from depression' do not form a homogenous group. When a patient describes what depression means to each of them as individuals a much clearer picture emerges, one which the diagnostic processes of Chinese medicine can sometimes make sense of within its own paradigm. The word 'appropriate' finds its way into a great many Chinese texts, the sense of being neither one extreme or the other, and many depression sufferers describe feelings which are constant and extreme. Just as, within its own paradigm, Chinese medicine aims to balance physical energies, so it also addresses mental and emotional energies, and has diagnostic language which both recognises and suggests treatment for 'stuck' patterns which affect the quality of someone's life.


This may all sound rather vague, but since each case of depression will manifest differently, the only clear guidance we can give is to suggest that you contact a BAcC member local to you for an assessment of whether they believe they could help your individual case.


Just as a small rider, the BAcC is not a service provider itself - it is a member organisation whose members work independently, mainly in a self-employed capacity.


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