At a family picnic a few months ago, my cousin raved about a form of acupuncture that brought her almost immediate relief from the depression, anxiety and insomnia she’d wrestled with for months. Called auricular (ear) therapy, this sub-type of acupuncture involves insertion of very small needles or taping tiny metal “seeds” onto various places in the ear. Auricular therapy can be useful in beating back demons like smoking, alcohol or drug addiction… helpful for people seeking to lose weight… soothing for chronic pain, as with arthritis… useful for treating nausea and high blood pressure… and for numerous other problems, including those related to mood. My cousin told me that the night after her first treatment, she slept soundly and woke up feeling free from the sense of doom that had long engulfed her.
Acupuncture of the ear has been popular in China for centuries, but what’s been known as auricular therapy was developed in the 1950s when a French doctor named Paul Nogier, MD, mapped specific sites, called points, on the ear based on the shape of a fetus (or homunculus). Take a careful look at a human ear, probably someone else’s, and see if you can detect the outline of an inverted fetus. This may challenge your imagination, but the concept is important — it is the key to understanding how auricular therapy works. This “ear map” is how the acupuncturist finds the particular points that correspond to the problem area of the patient’s body.
Though the exact mechanism that makes auricular therapy effective isn’t clear, a possible explanation is that stimulating certain nerves sends signals to the brain, generating a reflex response that sends soothing sensations to the targeted body part.
To find out more about this unusual therapy, I spoke with Jeff Zimmerman, OMD, LAc, a doctor of Oriental medicine and licensed acupuncturist in Westport, Connecticut. He told me he likes to use auricular therapy in conjunction with other types of acupuncture, though many practitioners treat certain types of problems with ear therapy alone. Most practitioners begin a session with a discussion of your motivation for wanting to, say, cut back on or stop drinking alcohol. You may be asked what obstacles have presented challenges in previous efforts, since treatment is tailored not just to your problem but also to how it interacts with your life. Depending on the specific way you experience the problem (e.g., drink until you pass out versus become a loud and angry drunk), different points will be used.
How many seeds or needles a practitioner uses varies — Dr. Zimmerman says he secures about five to seven seeds per ear under a small adhesive dressing (like tape), which should stay in place until the next treatment. Patients learn how to massage the points where the seeds are, thereby activating their effect at least three times a day and/or when they need relief from pain or anxiety or have an urge for the forbidden substance. This massaging may even help them when the seeds are removed.
Dr. Zimmerman says some of his patients have triumphed over a bad smoking habit after just one session, but that the general routine for an addiction treatment is six weekly sessions and then perhaps continuing another month or two after those. Some patients need “tune-up” therapy from time to time, and he noted that patients who seek auricular therapy for chronic pain or depression may want to return for a treatment every few months or so to keep their energy flowing freely.
Auricular therapy is not covered by all health insurance plans, but may be paid for as part of acupuncture. However, even insurers who won’t cover the primary cost of treatments may allow you to deduct them from a flexible spending account — check your policy. Prices vary considerably, depending on where you live and the kind of training your practitioner has had, with $50 or $60 per half-hour session a good ballpark estimate.
When looking for a practitioner, Zimmerman says to check for certification by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, www.nccaom.org) and licensing by your state specifically for acupuncture. Before you book, inquire about his/her experience in treating your particular problem. He adds that it is important to be an educated consumer — ask around for information about the person you are considering and trust your instincts when you meet.