Ear Acupuncture is the New Cupping
Said to cure pain while boosting sports performance, auriculotherapy is worth a try.
The sport and fitness worlds cross paths with alternative medicine quite often. One example: Michael Phelps' cupping marks that piqued the interest of health enthusiasts everywhere last summer. This year, they’re shifting their attention to auriculotherapy, or ear acupuncture. It’s been around for thousands of years (and saw an uptick in celeb circles a few years back) but it’s seeing a resurgence now in the fitness community. MMA athletes, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters, and NBA players are known to favor the treatment as do notable trainers. PROJECT by Equinox instructor Bec Donlan, for example, posted a video of herself having the procedure done.
How it works
Auriculotherapy relies on a fetus-shaped map that is laid out on the skin of the ear. Points on the ear line up to certain places in the brain and on the body according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Needles, lasers, electro stimulation, and pressure are then used on various ear points for a therapeutic effect on the body. For example, if you have knee pain, the practitioner will stimulate the part of your ear that corresponds to your knee.
Auriculotherapy can also be used to treat issues ranging from anxiety to digestive problems. “There are a number of cranial nerves that feed into the ear,” says Jamie Starkey, Traditional Chinese Medicine manager and lead acupuncturist at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. “You've got a significant influence over the autonomic nervous system (which controls body functions you don't think about like breathing, your heartbeat, and digestion), and as a result, we have the ability to influence those activities through pricking the ear.”
Rafael Torres, an auriculotherapy and posturology expert in New York City, uses ear acupuncture to treat alignment issues (such as having one hip lower than the other or limited range of motion in your shoulders) in his pro- and recreational-athlete patients. In theory, one can influence the brain, and therefore postural imbalances, via pricking the ear as well. (Experts like Torres use auriculoptherapy as one part of the larger practice of posturology which also utilizes methods such as shoe insoles and more.)
The science—and lack thereof—behind auriculotherapy and posturology
“We typically use auriculotherapy for pain, anxiety, addiction-related issues, insomnia, nausea, and even weight loss,” says Starkey. “There are a lot of really strong randomized-control studies that support auricular acupuncture with these conditions.” In addition to her role at Cleveland Clinic, Starkey is on the medical staff of the Cleveland Indians. Her primary focus in this role is to help athletes deal with pain and inflammation through full-body acupuncture (including auriculotherapy), while postural issues are left to other specialists.
Starkey says the hypothesis practitioners of posturology offer sounds like a valid one, but cautions that it’s exactly that—a hypothesis. The fact that cranial nerves are present in the ear means that auriculotherapy really can stimulate the nervous system, but whether or not that’s enough to create changes in posture is a big question mark, she says. On Torres’ Instagram page, though, you can see anecdotal examples of postural changes in his clients.
The bottom line
Auriculotherapy is a safe treatment to evaluate based on your own experience. “There is very little risk so if someone notices a benefit, it may be worth their while,” Starkey says. As with all alternative medicine treatments, Starkey suggests carefully considering whether there’s a clear cause and effect before and after your sessions. Whether you take the time to jot down a few notes about how you feel pre- and post-treatment or just make an effort to do a mental check of how you’re feeling, it’s worth it to make sure you’re truly seeing benefits.