Animal and human studies suggest that the beneficial effects of acupuncture on health, including mental and emotional functioning, are related to different mechanisms of action, including changes in neurotransmitters involved in emotional regulation such as serotonin, modulation of the autonomic nervous system, and changes in immune function. Some researchers have argued that the placebo effect plays a significant role in clinical response to acupuncture; however, sham-controlled studies do not support this hypothesis.
In a small double-blind sham-controlled study, 36 mildly depressed or anxious patients were randomized to either an acupuncture protocol traditionally used by Chinese medical practitioners to treat anxiety or to 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.
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.
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