Health Benefits of Ear Acupuncture

Close-up of man with acupuncture needles on ear
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Ear acupuncture is a type of acupuncture that involves inserting needles into specific points on the ear. Stimulating these points is thought to promote healing in other areas of the body.

Also referred to as auricular therapy or auriculo-acupuncture, ear acupuncture is often incorporated into standard acupuncture treatments.

Although ear acupuncture is largely based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (a form of alternative medicine that originated in China), it was developed in the mid-20th century by French scientist Paul Nogier.

Uses

Ear acupuncture is used to improve the body's flow of vital energy (also known as qi or chi) and to restore a balance between yin and yang (two opposing but complementary energies) within the internal organs.

In traditional Chinese medicine, each of these effects is considered essential in treating disease and achieving health. Auricular acupuncture is considered a "microsystem," in which the whole body is mapped on the ear in miniature.

In alternative medicine, ear acupuncture is typically used for these and other health conditions:

In addition, ear acupuncture is sometimes used to enhance mood, aid in smoking cessation, alleviate pain, promote sounder sleep, relieve stress, and support weight loss.

Benefits

A number of studies suggest that this therapy may aid in the treatment of a variety of health conditions. Here's a look at several findings on ear acupuncture and its potential health benefits.

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health

The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) developed as standardized ear acupuncture protocol using three to five points—the sympathetic, Shen Men, kidney, liver, and lung points. These may be stimulated by needling, touch, movement, heat, or electricity. The protocol was developed at Lincoln Hospital in New York in the 1970s to support drug and alcohol treatment by easing withdrawal symptoms and promoting calm. The NADA has trained over 10,000 health professionals to provide their protocol. It is widely used in substance abuse and behavioral therapy programs, having spread at the grassroots level on the basis of positive anecdotal experience.

A 2016 perspective paper listed studies of the use of the NADA protocol for substance abuse and behavioral health disorders and noted the challenges of validating this therapy with randomized controlled trials (RCT). The NADA protocol is delivered in a holistic treatment environment, which is difficult to replicate for controlled studies. The authors characterize it as a psychosocial intervention. The paper noted that there is a range of small, positive studies, but large studies have yet to come.

Insomnia

Auricular acupuncture has been studied for the relief of insomnia. In the most common technique, seeds or magnetic beads are placed on acupressure points on the ear auricle and then gently massaged. A 2015 review of 15 studies of auricular acupuncture for insomnia found a positive effect. However, the authors noted that the evidence is of poor quality as the included studies often had methodological flaws, small sample sizes, and possible publication bias.

A 2018 study comparing acupuncture (traditional sites not on the ear) with combined acupuncture and auricular acupuncture and with no treatment found that the treatment groups had better outcomes in reducing insomnia. However, there was no difference between the groups that received acupuncture alone (sites other than the ear) and the group that received acupuncture plus auricular acupuncture.

Smoking

So far, research on ear acupuncture's effectiveness as a smoking cessation aid has yielded mixed results. In a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, a trial involving 125 people found that ear acupuncture was no more effective than placebo treatment in improving the rate of smoking cessation. The study involved five consecutive weeks of once-a-week treatments.

A 2014 meta-analysis of 25 studies of ear acupuncture, ear acupressure, or auriculotherapy for cigarette smoking cessation found that it had positive results when compared to non-specific or inactive controls, but it was no more effective than other treatments for smoking cessation.

Migraines

Ear acupuncture may be useful in the treatment of migraines, according to a study published in Acupuncture & Electro-Therapeutics Research in 2012. Analyzing findings on 35 migraine patients, the study's authors determined that two months of weekly ear acupuncture treatments led to significant improvements in pain and mood.

There has not been a systematic review of studies of ear acupuncture for migraine. Large reviews of using acupuncture for migraines have excluded studies of ear acupuncture, although showing positive indications for body acupuncture.

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 on ear acupuncture's effectiveness in pain management. The report's authors concluded that ear acupuncture may be effective for the treatment of a variety of types of pain, especially postoperative pain.

A 2017 review of studies looked into using ear acupuncture for immediate pain relief. 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 that ear acupuncture could be useful in the first 48 hours of pain.

Constipation

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. However, the authors noted a high risk of bias in the included studies. As well, they were all conducted in China, and cultural differences may make the results less valid for Westerners.

Obesity

With obesity on the rise worldwide, it is good to have more tools at hand to help people lose weight or prevent weight gain. Stimulation of auricular acupoints may be one more tactic. This may be done by needles, electrical stimulation, or pressure. 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.

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 adverse events. The most common minor side effects were dizziness, pain at the site of insertion, nausea, skin irritation, and minor bleeding.

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, make sure to consult your physician first. Self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care can have serious consequences.

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