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Updated on October 09, 2020
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Ear acupuncture is an alternative medicine treatment in which specific points on the ear are stimulated in order to promote healing in other areas of the body. As with the type of acupuncture practiced in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), hair-thin needles inserted into the skin often are used. However, ear acupuncture also can be performed with lasers, electricity, heat, magnetic balls, seeds, or finger pressure.1
Although based on the ancient principles of TCM, ear acupuncture is quite modern, having been developed in the mid-20th century by French physician Paul Nogier. Since then it has been shown in studies to be useful for an array of medical issues, including substance abuse, insomnia, smoking cessation, various types of pain, and more.
Auricular acupuncture regards the ear as a "microsystem" comprised of acupuncture points that coordinate to every part of the body. Although there are many different maps of acupuncture points for the ear, in 1990, the World Health Organization standardized 39 of them.2 Of those, there are 10 "master points" that are regarded as most useful:
1 Point What It Affects Point zero Point
What It Affects
Point zero - Body homeostasis
Shen men - Neurogate that promotes tranquilization
Sympathetic - Balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
Allergy point - Reduces inflammation associated with allergic and rheumatic conditions
Thalamus point - Affects signals between the thalamus, cerebral cortex, and hypothalamus
Tranquilizer point - Promotes sedation
Endocrine point - Promotes hormone regulation
Master oscillation point - Balances the cerebral hemispheres
Master sensorial point - Controls sensory areas of the brain
Master cerebral point - Associated with the prefrontal lobe of the brain
Depending on the area stimulated, ear acupuncture is used by TCM practitioners as well as nurses and military personnel to treat a wide variety of health conditions, including but not limited to:
Low back pain
In modern medicine, ear acupuncture has been used to treat addiction, promote sound sleep, aid in smoking cessation, and more. In addition to anecdotal evidence, there has been research to support the effectiveness of auricular acupuncture for many of these purposes.
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health
In the 1970s, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) developed a standardized ear acupuncture protocol at Lincoln Hospital in New York. Designed to support drug and alcohol treatment by easing withdrawal symptoms and promoting calm, the program uses three to five points—the sympathetic, Shen Men, kidney, liver, and lung points. These may be stimulated by needling, touch, movement, heat, or electricity.
Since its the inception, NADA has trained more than 10,000 health professionals to administer the protocol.3 Because it is delivered in a holistic treatment environment, it has been difficult to replicate in controlled studies. In a 2016 perspective paper of the NADA protocol for substance abuse and behavioral health disorders, the authors, characterizing it as a psychosocial intervention, noted this challenge of validating this therapy with randomized controlled trials.4 Even so, based on positive anecdotal experience, ear acupuncture is widely used in substance abuse and behavioral therapy programs, having spread at the grassroots level.
When used to help people who have trouble sleeping, auricular acupuncture is administered using seeds or magnetic beads placed on acupressure points on the ear and gently massaged.
A 2015 review of 15 studies of auricular acupuncture for insomnia found a positive effect.5 However, the authors noted that the evidence was of poor quality based on methodological flaws, small sample sizes, and possible publication bias.
A 2018 study comparing traditional (non-auricular) acupuncture with combined acupuncture and auricular acupuncture and with no treatment found that the treatment groups had better outcomes in reducing insomnia.6 However, there was no difference between the groups that received acupuncture on sites other than the ear and the group that received acupuncture plus auricular acupuncture.
Ear acupuncture may be useful for treating migraines, according to a study published in Acupuncture & Electro-Therapeutics Research in 2012.9 It found that two months of weekly ear acupuncture treatments led to significant improvements in pain and mood for 35 migraine patients.
There has not been a systematic review of studies of ear acupuncture for migraine. Large reviews of acupuncture for migraines have excluded studies of ear acupuncture, although showing positive indications for body acupuncture.10
Acute or Post-Surgery Pain
Acupuncture has long been used for the treatment of pain. For a report published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2010, investigators sized up 17 studies looking at the effectiveness of ear acupuncture's in pain management.11 The report's authors concluded that ear acupuncture may be effective for relieving a variety of types of pain, especially postoperative pain.
Similarly, a 2017 review of studies looked into using ear acupuncture for immediate pain relief.12 They included 10 randomized controlled studies that compared ear acupuncture to analgesics. Six of the studies found ear acupuncture superior to analgesics, while three studies found it comparable. The authors concluded ear acupuncture could be useful in the first 48 hours of pain.
Ear acupuncture may aid in the treatment of constipation. A 2014 systematic review of randomized controlled trials found that it was probably beneficial in managing constipation.13 However, the authors noted a high risk of bias in the included studies. What's more, they were all conducted in China, potentially making the results less valid for Westerners.
Stimulation of auricular acupoints with needles, electrical stimulation, or pressure may aid in weight loss. A 2017 meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled studies found that ear acupuncture improved body weight, body mass index, body fat, and waist circumference in overweight and obese adults.14
What to Expect
Ear acupuncture typically is done on an individual basis. However, it is often performed in a group setting in substance abuse recovery programs.
No disrobing is necessary. If you're hair is long, you'll be asked to pulling it back to expose your ears. You'll likely be treated while in a seated position.
The practitioner will place three to five sterile, disposable needles into specific points of your ear. The needles are very fine; you may feel a vague sensation as they're inserted if you feel anything at all.
You will then sit quietly, listening to music or meditating, for a period of time. Depending on the practitioner, this may be between 10 minutes and 40 minutes. The needles will then be removed. No bandage is needed. Sessions are likely to be held one to three times per week for several weeks.
The practitioner may offer to place small seeds (of the vaccaria herb) on the acupuncture sites, taping them in place. You can then massage these ear seeds two to three times a day when you have symptoms.
An alternative to ear seeds are ear tacks—tiny rings with a very short needle attached that are strategically positioned on the ear and held in place with adhesive tape. As with the seeds, tacks are worn for several days and can be pressed in response to symptoms. ASP needles are another alternative; they are retained and known to be very effective.
Side Effects and Risks
Ear acupuncture is a low-risk treatment. A systematic review of adverse events reported in more than 40 published research papers found no serious side effects. The most common were dizziness, pain at the site of insertion, nausea, skin irritation, and minor bleeding.15
Contraindications for ear acupuncture include pregnancy, epilepsy, hemophilia, and metal allergy. If you have a pacemaker, you should not get the type of ear acupuncture that uses an electrical pulse.
Sterile needles should be used, or you could be at risk for an infection. Needles should not be reused or you might be at risk of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis or human immunodeficiency virus. The use of sterile and disposable needles is required for licensed acupuncturists in the U.S.
A Word From Verywell
Ear acupuncture is a relatively safe procedure and may be of use in addition to standard therapy for a variety of uses. If you're considering trying ear acupuncture, consult your physician first. Self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care can have serious consequences.