A woman is receiving acupuncture needles on her ear.

Needles…in your ear?!?

Needles...In Your Ear?!

By Dr. Robert Cumming

Today I’d like to talk about a form of acupuncture that I frequently use called auriculotherapy or more commonly known as ear acupuncture. It is a form of acupuncture where very fine needles are inserted into the surface of the ear to achieve various physiological responses. It has a number of benefits over traditional body acupuncture where the needles are inserted in various places all over the body. Since the needles are placed only on the ears the patient is free to move around and change position as needed (provided they don’t touch their ears or talk on the phone!). This provides 2 benefits:

  • if the patient needs to change position frequently due to discomfort
  • range of motion or other testing can be done pre-and post-needle insertion to gauge effect.

For example, if the patient can only raise their arm to a certain height in a certain range we can assess that movement throughout the process to gauge how the patient is responding to the treatment and whether or not the therapeutic benefit is being achieved. Treatment time varies but is generally 20 -30 minutes and typically very relaxing. An additional benefit for those that are squeamish about needles is that ear needles can’t be seen by the patient, unless they are taking selfies during the treatment. For those patients who cannot tolerate needles or perhaps children seeking treatment, we change the technique and use very small metallic seeds with an adhesive backing which are applied to the surface of the ear and left on for up to one week. This approach doesn’t have as immediate a response as the needles but often has the same or very similar effect over time.

Most people think of acupuncture as predominantly a pain relief treatment but it has been shown to create a healing response and along with that an associated reduction in pain. There are 2 theories on how this occurs:

1) a neurophysiological response is created, meaning the brain and peripheral nervous system are directly stimulated by the various needles.


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2) a neuroendocrine model where the needles stimulate the release of neurotransmitters in the brain which then trigger the release of certain compounds thus triggering whatever physiological response we are trying to create.

Either way, acupuncture often has excellent effects often immediately after the needles are inserted. The only downside with acupuncture (apart from the needles) is that there is no predictive test we can perform to evaluate whether or not you would be a good candidate for the treatment, we just need to do a therapeutic trial and see how you respond. Some of the most common conditions treated with auriculotherapy include: headaches, tennis elbow, frozen shoulder, rotator cuff issues, disc protrusions, degenerative arthritis and sciatica. Overall I have found it to be a tremendously valuable tool in my arsenal. In fact, I often tell patients that over the 16 years I have been practising acupuncture I still see a response to treatment every single day that makes me think I wouldn’t believe it unless I had seen it with my own eyes!

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