Acupuncture has diverse mechanisms of action
Animal and human studies suggest that the beneficial effects of acupuncture on health including mental and emotional functioning are related to different mechanism of action including changes in neurotransmitters involved in emotional regulation such as serotonin, and others; modulation of the autonomic nervous system; and changes in immune function. Some researches have argued that the placebo effect plays a significant role in clinical response to acupuncture, however sham-controlled studies do not support this hypothesis.
Research findings support acupuncture as a treatment of anxiety
Acupuncture and acupressure are widely used to treat anxiety in both Asia and Western countries. Extensive case reports from the Chinese medical literature suggest that different acupuncture protocols are reduce the severity of generalized anxiety and panic attacks (Lake & Flaws 2001).
In a small double-blind sham-controlled study 36 mildly depressed or anxious patients were randomized to an acupuncture protocol traditionally used by Chinese medical practitioners to treat anxiety versus a sham acupuncture protocol (i.e. acupuncture points believed to have no beneficial effects). All patients received three treatments. Heart rate variability (HRV) and mean heart rate were measured at 5 and 15 minutes following treatment. Resting heart rate was significantly lower in the treatment group but not in the sham group, and changes in HRV measures suggested that acupuncture may have changed autonomic activity resulting in reduction of overall anxiety. The significance of these findings is limited by the absence of measures of baseline anxiety before and after treatment.
In another double-blind study 55 healthy adults (i.e., who had not been previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder) were randomized to a bilateral auricular (i.e. a school of acupuncture in which only points on the ears are treated) acupuncture protocol called the “shenmen” point—a protocol believed to be effective against anxiety (the so-called “relaxation” point)—versus a sham acupuncture point. In all subjects acupuncture needles remained in place for 48 hours. The “relaxation” group was significantly less anxious at 30 minutes, 24 and 48 hours compared to the other two groups, however there were no significant inter-group differences in blood pressure, heart rate or electrodermal activity (Wang 2001).
Reviews report mainly positive findings
An early narrative review of controlled studies, outcomes studies and published case reports on acupuncture as a treatment of anxiety and depressed mood was published by the British Acupuncture Council. Sham-controlled studies yielded consistent improvements in anxiety using both regular (i.e. body) acupuncture and electro-acupuncture. The authors remarked that significant differences existed between protocols used in both regular and electro-acupuncture suggesting that acupuncture may have general beneficial effects or possibly placebo effects. Although most controlled studies reviewed reported a general anxiety-reducing effect of acupuncture, the reviewers regarded these findings as inconclusive because of study design problems including the absence of standardized symptom rating scales in most studies, limited follow-up, and poorly defined differences between protocols used in different studies.
A recently published systematic review (Amorim 2018) compared findings of studies on traditional (body) acupuncture, ear acupuncture (ariculotherapy) and electro-therapy in the treatment of anxiety. Some studies included in the review reported that acupuncture enhances response to prescription anti-anxiety medications and may also reduce medication side effects. The authors found good evidence that different styles of acupuncture reduce symptoms of anxiety in general, and recommended additional sham-controlled studies to help determine whether certain protocols are more beneficial than others.
For more information about complementary and alternative treatments of anxiety read my e-book “Anxiety: The Integrative Mental Health Solution.”
Few mild adverse effects
Uncommon transient adverse effects associated with acupuncture include bruising, fatigue and nausea. Very rare cases of pneumothorax (i.e. a potentially life-threatening condition caused when an acupuncture needle results in the collapse of a lung) have been reported.