If you have any interest in natural medicine, you’re certainly familiar with acupuncture and have maybe even tried it. In fact, even if your medicine cabinet is chock full of prescription drugs, you’ve at least heard of acupuncture. It’s become that mainstream.
But there’s a microsystem of acupuncture that’s much less well-known, and I got a taste of it from Anthony Phillips, an acupuncturist and herbalist who practices outside of Boston.
Phillips specializes in auriculotherapy (also called auricular therapy), which uses needles, massage, low-energy lasers, and metal “press balls” on the external ear to treat a variety of conditions. “Stress, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, pain reduction – auriculotherapy is helpful for all of them,” Phillips says. “When you stimulate a point, a message is sent through the nerves to the brain, and then the brain decides what to do with that information.” I guess one assumes the brain knows what it’s doing.
“Ear acupuncture” is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and therefore ancient, but has been redeveloped in Europe over the past 50 years, thanks to the work of Dr. Paul Nogier, a French neurologist. Nogier postulated that the shape of the ear corresponds to the shape of an inverted fetus, deducing that anatomic regions of the body correspond to specific zones of the ear. The Chinese agreed with him.
Auriculotherapists also diagnose conditions via palpation and inspection of the ear. Tender and discolored areas of the ear are believed to correspond to problem areas in the body.
Today, the most well-known application of auriculotherapy is in the treatment of substance abuse, even nicotine addiction. “When you’re addicted to a substance,” Phillips explains, “the body loses its ability to produce its own endorphins. Auriculotherapy helps to increase endorphin production and calm down the central nervous system.” Phillips works at a Boston-based drop-in addictions clinic that treats 20 people per hour using the same five points on each ear. The points are part of a worldwide protocol well-established by NADA, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (www.acudetox.com).
To give me a taste of auriculotherapy, Phillips asked me to lie down on his treatment table. He used an electrical device called a point finder to show me another way auriculotherapists locate points. He placed the pointer at various spots on my ear – when it beeped, that suggested an imbalance in that area. Other times it didn’t beep at all.
Then Phillips, who typically works with about 50 ear points, offered me the 5-point treatment protocol for addiction recovery. He inserted stainless steel needles (shorter than those used for body acupuncture) just one millimeter into my ear. The five points he needled corresponded to the liver, kidney, lung, central nervous system (a calming point), and one point was called the Shen Men, an endorphin point.
I did feel a slight pinch when the needles went in, but Phillips said that if I were to get treated regularly, I’d feel nothing upon insertion. As I lay there, some of the needles in my ears itched, which was a bit uncomfortable. Phillips, however, says clients often drift off to sleep during treatments.
Critics say there are currently no high-quality trials confirming the efficacy of auriculotherapy, but I’m open to the idea that there’s something to it. If it could help me with my sugar cravings, I’d wear needles in my ear like earrings.
Portland is the creator, host, and executive producer of “What’s the Alternative?” on the former Veria Living TV. She also writes for Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.