By Andrea Rivera
Patients often have extra curiosity or surprise when I insert needles into their ears. “Why do you put needles in the ear?” For practitioners, it’s just another area of the body to utilize in treating our patients, the same as needling one’s leg, arm, face, or scalp. However, like scalp acupuncture, auricular acupuncture has its own unique theoretical basis as well as different developments and research compared to traditional body acupuncture. Both had their historical origins in ancient China. Technically, auricular acupuncture can be used alone to treat various conditions of the body.
Body acupuncture is based upon a system of 12 meridians which run throughout the surface of the body as lines of energy force. The ear, however, is a self-contained microsystem that affects the whole body. When we treat the ear, we locate points on it based on an anatomical arrangement of the body onto the ear with the brain and upper portion of the head being on the lobe and the rest of the body following in order to the top of the ear. The body is imaged onto the ear in the fetal position, this makes the spine lie along the raised ledge of the ear, that ledge is called the antihelix.
This mapping of the body onto the ear was put into place by the pioneering work of Dr. Paul Nogier in France. I like the story so I’ll share what I’ve read. In 1950, Nogier was “intrigued by a strange scar which patients had in the external ear.” He found that the scar was due to a treatment for sciatica involving cauterization of the antihelix by a lay practitioner, Mrs. Barrin. The patients were unanimous in stating that they had been successfully relieved of sciatica pain within hours, even minutes, of this ear cauterization. Barrin had learned of this auricular procedure from her father, who had learned it from a Chinese mandarin. Nogier later stated “I then proceeded to carry out some cauterizations myself, which proved effective, then tried some other, less barbarous processes.” A simple dry jab with a needle “also led to the relief of sciatica if given to the same antihelix area, an area of the ear which was painful to pressure.” He had already studied the works of a French acupuncturist and was open to the use of acupuncture needles. From the low back area on the antihelix and further experimentation, the rest of the body was mapped onto the ear.
The theories of what is happening during auriculotherapy are many. I tend to favor the endorphin theory (endorphins are natural pain relieving biochemicals, ear and body acupuncture have been found to raise blood serum and cerebrospinal fluid levels of endorphins). We can also look at innervation of the ear and see that branches of the trigeminal, auricular, occipital, and vagus nerve** run through the ear and by needling over (not into, let it be known we’re never needling into nerves, anywhere) the free nerve endings create communication with those nerves and what they control.
How do we decide where to place the needles? We look for localized skin surface changes such as discolored areas, flaky skin, tenderness, or lowered skin resistance (electrodermal activity of the area is high) and this presents to the practitioner as a “soggy” area when pressed. These are the effects of micro-vasoconstriction. Heightened activity in specific sympathetic nerves leads to the regional reduction of blood circulation, which then leads to cellular damage in small areas of the skin that overlie the ear. A needle in these areas should then improve blood flow and balance that heightened activity.
Although the ears can be just as sensitive to needling as areas on the body, most people report less nervousness and discomfort with ear acupuncture! I also find that once I get the ear needles in, the deep relaxing effects of the treatment really kick in.
Thanks for reading!
**The vagus nerve is considered “the mind-body connector” and gives us that “gut feeling”. It influences eye contact, human emotion, and detects the unexpressed nuances of communication. It begins in the brain, traverses the head, down the spine, into ears, lungs, heart, liver, spleen, gallbladder, kidney, pancreas, intestines, reproductive organs, and the ureter. To affect the vagus nerve alone is a great reason to needle the ears!
Oleson T. Auriculotherapy Manual: Chinese and Western Systems of Ear Acupuncture. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Health Care Alternatives; 1998, p.1-25
Andrea is a licensed Acupuncturist, Massage Therapist and Chinese Herbalist living and practicing in the beautiful city of Missoula, Montana.