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Ear Acupuncture for Addiction, Pain and Anxiety

By Gayle McGuire, RN, L.Ac.

As a registered nurse, I have been with Eisenhower Medical Center and the Betty Ford Center for 29 years. I became an acupuncturist 15 years ago and have had impressive results treating patients with auricular (ear) acupuncture for chemical dependency, alcohol withdrawal, anxiety and pain.

The ear is innervated (has nerve supply) from three major sources: the vagus nerve, the 3rd branch of the trigeminal nerve and the superior cervical plexus. All nerves have fibers that are either sympathetic or parasympathetic, or mixed. The ear is the only surface area of the body fed by parasympathetic nerve fibers. The outer ear acts like a switchboard to the brain and each point triggers electrical impulses, going from the ear to the brain to address both generic and specific cravings.

Since 1972, when Hong Kong neurosurgeon H.L. Wen, M.D., discovered that auricular acupuncture could alleviate the symptoms of opiate withdrawal, this method been used for detoxification and relapse prevention.

In the United States, acupuncture detoxification was first introduced in 1974 on an outpatient basis at Lincoln Hospital, a city facility in New York’s South Bronx. By the mid-1980s, the success of this unique procedure had become so evident that treatment facilities across the United States began incorporating acupuncture, and especially auricular acupuncture, into their substance abuse treatment programs.

In 1985, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) was established to promote education and training of clinicians in the NADA ear acupuncture protocol. These protocols for acupuncture detox call for five needles to be gently placed in each ear. Some practitioners will then add intradermal needles, magnets or ear seeds, which are small metal beads attached to a piece of adhesive tape that can provide sustained pressure on the acupuncture points, to prolong the effects.

In 1987, the first of many research reports now available on the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating addiction was published. Since then acupuncture detoxification has grown rapidly, evolved, and is now widely and effectively used for acute and prolonged withdrawal as well as relapse prevention.

Auricular acupuncture is also called battlefield acupuncture, a term first used in 2001 by Col. Richard Niemtzow MD, PhD, who serves as a consultant for complementary and alternative medicine to the Surgeon General of the Air Force. The Air Force is now routinely training physicians being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to treat trauma and pain with auricular acupuncture. The treatment uses small needles in the skin of the ear to block pain in as few as five minutes. The analgesic effects can last for several days or longer. The procedure was initially introduced in 2008 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) in Germany, where it was applied to wounded service members and local patients with significant results. Many injured service members report significant relief from pain, along with a greatly reduced need for dangerous, often habit-forming drugs, such as morphine and other opioids.

Increasingly, auricular acupuncture is becoming an important part of the TCM practitioner’s toolbox.

Gayle McGuire is a registered nurse and licensed acupuncturist certified in NADA protocol. She practiced auricular and full body acupuncture at the Betty Ford Center for 10 years and now sees patients at AcQPoint Wellness Center in Palm Desert. For more information contact AcQpoint at (760) 345.2200.

2 Responses to “Ear Acupuncture for Addiction, Pain and Anxiety”

  1. Winnie Bond-Madsen says:

    Are your services covered by Medicare? Thank you

    • Morris Sheppard says:

      Thanks for your inquiry. Although we have just recently become a network Blue Shield provider, and also can accept certain other insurance, Medicare at this point does not cover acupuncture. We hope that that can change in the future.

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