Stress and acupuncture

Up to half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress every year, which often results in illness. Other factors that affect stress levels include alcohol, smoking, exams, pregnancy, divorce, moving, death in family, lifestyle, drugs, poor nutrition and unemployment.

The signs of stress can vary from one individual to the next. Stress may manifest physically as an illness, tiredness or lethargy, or as symptoms such as sore, tight muscles, dull skin, lank hair, or erratic sleep patterns. Mental stress can result in depression, mood swings, anger, frustration, confusion, paranoid behaviour, jealousy or withdrawal.

Stress is a common complaint cited by acupuncture patients, with a variety of possible associated symptoms. The most prevalent of these is anxiety. Conditions that can be affected by stress are back pain, chronic pain, depression, headache, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, menopausal symptoms, migraines, premenstrual syndrome and urinary incontinence.

How acupuncture can help with stress

Some studies have found acupuncture to be of benefit in reducing stress. In a study using 17 volunteers, the needling of one specific acupuncture point led to marked reductions in stress. The acupuncture point called “Heart 7” was needled in four weekly sessions using volunteers recruited from staff in a hospice. 16 of them (94%) showed improved ‘psychological stress’ levels according to the Edinburgh EPDS scale. The greatest fall in the EPDS scores was observed within the first two treatments and at the end of the study the average reduction was 44%.

Another study, which was a randomised controlled trial, looked at the effect of acupuncture on 18 patients. The “Perceived Stress Scale 14” (PSS-14) and the “Measure Yourself Medical Outcome Profile” (MYMOP) were completed before and after treatment. After 5 weeks, the acupuncture group reported significant changes. The study concluded that acupuncture might be successful in treating symptoms of stress.

More information on these studies and all references can be found here.

In general, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes promote physical and emotional well-being.

Research has shown that acupuncture treatment may specifically benefit stress and anxiety disorders and their symptoms by:

  • Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry
  • Improving stress induced memory impairment and an increasing reactivity in the hippocampus
  • Reducing serum levels of corticosterone which is connected with heightened stress
  • Regulating levels of neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA, neuropeptide Y and ACTH, which improves the brain’s mood chemistry
  • Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which helps initiate a relaxation response;
  • Reducing levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with stress reactions

More information on this research can be found in the British Acupuncture Website.

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