A study conducted by psychiatrists from the Republic of China has found that a combination of traditional acupuncture and low doses of antidepressants is an effective alternative to high doses of antidepressant drugs. There was also significantly less side-effects associated with the combination of acupuncture and low-doses of antidepressants compared to only taking high doses of antidepressants, which may make this a valuable alternative for those sensitive to antidepressant medication.
The study, authored by Wen-Jing Zhang, Xin-Bo Yang and Bao-Liang Zhong, was published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2009.
The study recruited 80 participants whom suffered from major depressive disorder. Of these 80 participants, half received traditional acupuncture treatment along with 10 milligrams of the antidepressant fluoxetine per day. The other half received a sham acupuncture treatment along with 20-30 milligrams of fluoxetine per day.
Those in the sham acupuncture group were pricked with needles in places that were not identified as acupoints or meridians. This sham acupuncture was administered to make it appear as if both groups were receiving identical treatments. If participants could guess which treatment group they had been placed into, then this may have compromised the validity of the experiment.
All the participants received either real or sham treatment from the same acupuncturist five times a week over a period of six weeks.
Originally, the authors of this study had intended for the group of participants receiving the acupuncture therapy to take a placebo instead of an antidepressant drug. An experimental design such as this would have made the findings of the study more conclusive. The results of acupuncture could have been directly compared to the results of antidepressant medication. This was rejected by the local ethics committee, probably due to concerns regarding fairness to the participants.
During the six week period, the participants were administered the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression and the Hamilton Rating Scale for Anxiety four times. Both are standardized tests often used to measure depression and anxiety.
The results of the study found that both groups of participants had significant decreases in depression. The group of participants in the traditional acupuncture and low-dose group had an average improvement of 80% on the Hamilton Rating Scale of Depression and the group of high-dose participants had an improvement of 77.5%. There was a similar effect concerning anxiety reduction.
According to the authors of this study, the antidepressive effects of acupuncture are due to the fact that it, “initiates stimulation of small diameter nerves in muscles, sending impulses to the spinal cord, midbrain, and pituitary gland, and results in the release of neurotransmitters such as monoamines and endorphins.”