One of the coolest things about acupuncture is that you can treat the ENTIRE body and just about every condition through points in the ear (known as auricular acupuncture). Just like how the brain is laid out in what’s called “homunculus” or “upside down man” where the top of the brain controls the bottom of the body and the bottom of the brain controls the top of the body, the ear is also micromap of the body, laid out like an upside-down fetus (see image above).
But how does it work? A growing number of studies have demonstrated that ear acupuncture promotes the release of endogenous endorphins such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (the “feel good” neurotransmitters.) Another reason it may be so effective is that the unique innervation of the ear allows an acupuncturist to access several cranial nerves:
- Cranial Nerve V: Trigeminal – Provides sensory function for the face and the motor function of chewing
- Cranial Nerve VII: Facial – Supplies motor, sensory and parasympathetic innervation to various structures of the head and neck
- Cranial Nerve IX: Glossopharyngeal – Parasympathetic, motor and sensory innervation of the tongue, pharynx and larynx
- Cranial Nerve X: Vagus – Supplies sensory, special sensory, motor and parasympathetic innervation to structures of the head, neck and thoracoabdominal cavity.1
The innervation of the auricular branch of the vagus nerve provides afferent input (afferent neurons carry impulses from the sensory organs to the central nervous system) to the nucleus tractus solitarius, which innervates numerous brain structures including limbic structures and the amygdala, offering a pathway for acupuncture to target the very structures involved in processing emotion, memory, learning, sensory input, and gastrointestinal regulation in a more specific fashion than medication therapy is able to achieve.2
Auricular acupuncture is particularly useful in treating hard-to-reach areas of the body such as internal organs and post-surgery when we need to treat an area but can’t needle it directly. Ear acupuncture is also widely used in smoking cessation. A hallmark of auricular acupuncture is the auricular trauma protocol, a combination of six points in the ear that offers a nonpharmacologic treatment option and has been shown to be highly effective for treating PTSD in veterans. For patients who fear needles, ear seeds and our trusty acupoint stimulator pens provide non-invasive ways to stimulate points in the ears to deliver effective treatment.
- King, Heather C., Moore, Chad, Spence, Dennis L. (2015) Exploring Self-Reported Benefits of Auricular Acupuncture Among Veterans With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Holistic Nursing. (Volume 34 Number 3 September 2016 291–299) 10.1177/0898010115610050