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Acupuncture may be an effective way to treat depression during pregnancy, and to reduce the pain of menstrual cramps, according to new research into the health benefits of the ancient Chinese practice. One study, from researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, found that women confronting depression during pregnancy experienced a greater reduction in symptoms when treated with acupuncture targeted to treat depression, compared with those treated with control acupuncture (when needles were inserted into points not known to target depression) or massage. Those findings will be published in the March issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. In a separate analysis, published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and covered last week by the BBC, Korean researchers reviewed 27 studies including more than 3,000 women that analyzed the impact of acupuncture on menstrual cramps. In all but two studies, they found that women receiving acupuncture targeted to treat cramps reported a greater reduction in discomfort than those treated with “sham acupuncture.”

The study analyzing the effects of acupuncture on women battling prenatal depression included 150 pregnant women who met the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. In addition to receiving either depression-specific acupuncture, control acupuncture or massage, all study participants also underwent eight weeks of therapy. The researchers found that women who received the actual acupuncture treatment experienced a more significant reduction in depression symptoms (63%) than those in the control or massage groups (44%). The study authors suggest that these findings provide evidence for acupuncture as another option for treating depression in pregnant women, who, they note, are often wary of utilizing antidepressant medications even if they had taken them prior to becoming pregnant.

In the review that assessed the value of acupuncture for treating menstrual cramps, researchers found that women with severe menstrual pain experienced more relief through acupuncture treatment than through a more traditional period remedy, painkillers. The research, conducted by a team from Kyung Hee Medical Centre in South Korea, did uncover flaws in the design of some of the 27 studies, the BBC reports, but overall, the authors concluded that the review provided “promising evidence” for the potential benefits of acupuncture as a treatment for debilitating menstrual pain.