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Lend Me Your Ears: Auricular Acupuncture

Auricular Acupuncture (acupuncture performed on the ear) has an incredibly fascinating history, much of it coming not from China but from right here in New York! But first- you’re probably asking “Wait so ear acupuncture is a thing?” Yes. If you’re a patient of mine you’ve likely had a lot of it. So first, I’ll tell you a little about why I use ear acupuncture, and why you might want it.

The current system of Auricular acupuncture (acupuncture performed on the ears) was first developed and performed by a French physician named Nogier in the 1950’s. If you’ve ever seen a foot reflexology map you can get a good idea of ear acupuncture-  regions of the ear correspond to all the organs and parts of the body. By stimulating a specific region of the ear (using acupuncture needles or other methods), changes can occur in that corresponding part of the body.

I’ve found auricular acupuncture to be quite a powerful treatment, and it makes sense if you think about it. Much like the tips of your fingers, the ear is rich with nerve endings and capillary supply, so any type of stimulation is processed by the brain quickly and with a strong effect. During acupuncture treatments, I typically only perform acupuncture on one ear, because the stimulation is that strong. Both ears simply aren’t needed! If a patient has, for example, right elbow pain, the points will be on the right side, but if they are coming for digestive issues, I will switch the ear I use from session to session.

I also use something called “ear seeds”- a small piece of adhesive with a tiny stainless steel ball in the center. At the end of a session, I’ll typically put 3-4 ear seeds on one side and instruct the patient to leave them in 3-4 days. This provides continuous, low-intensity stimulation as opposed to acupuncture which is higher intensity, short term stimulation of the points. Patients tell me that ear seeds are especially good for anxiety.

Now for the New York City connection…

In the 1970’s, drug abuse rates were very high in NYC, and detox and addiction recovery services were greatly lacking. In response to this, a team of medical professionals and community activists began using acupuncture at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx as part of the outpatient detox program. They developed a standardized 5 point ear acupuncture protocol known as NADA which helped patients cope with cravings and withdrawal side effects, and for many it served as an alternative to using methadone for detox. Patients could come in any time, sit in a room with other patients and have the NADA ear points inserted. Today, the community program lives on as Lincoln Recovery Program. For the entire story on Lincoln Hospital and the development of the NADA protocol and organization, click here.

Today, NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) is a non-profit organization that sends trained people out to perform the 5-point ear protocol on a variety of patients- disaster relief, trauma and addictions. While I was a student at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, the historic 2007 wildfires in which nearly a million residents faced mandatory evacuations from their homes occurred. The school organized a group of students and teachers to go to Qualcomm Stadium, which served as an evacuation site for about 120,000 residents. We performed the NADA protocol on anyone who wanted a little relaxation and relief from the emotional trauma of being evacuated from their home and facing the possibility of losing everything.

The NADA protocol is used for smoking cessation, anxiety, weight loss and many more conditions in which we are in some sense “addicted” to a habit or way of thinking.

For a great article further describing the NADA protocol and what each of the 5 points represents, click here.