Auriculotherapy is reflexology of the ear. The auricle of the ear (the external, protruding portion), can be viewed as a microsystem representing the entire body. Microsystems are valuable in many disciplines, including neuroanatomy, foot and hand reflexology, face and scalp acupuncture, and iridology.
The first defined microsystem is a figurative representation of the human body mapped in the brain’s cortex. Called somatosensory mapping, a distorted human figure reflects the corresponding body parts in the sensory and motor cortex. Also known as the cortical homunculus, this figure has disproportionately large lips, hands, feet and genitals, reflecting the larger cortical area allocated for the innervation of these body parts.
Similar to the cortical homunculus, the ear has been mapped in detail to reflect associated areas with the entire human body. Due to its high level of accessibility, this auricular microsystem can be used to treat health conditions affecting all parts of the body. Stimulating points on the ear can alleviate problems associated with nearby regions of the face and head as well as relieve pathological disorders in the chest, abdomen, lower back, and feet. According to microsystem theory, there are no direct connections between the ear and specific distal body parts. Rather, nerves from the ear connect to reflex centers in the brain that send neurological reflex pathways to the spinal cord, which in turn, sends them on to the neurons reaching distal body parts.
While ear massage can be used to address a countless array of health issues, musculoskeletal pain and addiction have demonstrated some of the most dramatic responses to auriculotherapy.
Regardless of the mechanism, applying pressure to the ear in specific locations has been found to relieve distal body pain. Ear massage triggers the release of the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins. Studies have demonstrated that ear stimulation increases levels of endorphins in both the blood and cerebrospinal fluid.
Ear massage also aids in breaking the pain-spasm-pain cycle. Most chronic pain is due to the constriction of connective tissue surrounding muscles in spasm. Muscles remain in spasm when the brain instructs motor neurons to initiate and sustain their contraction. The stimulation of ear reflex points connected to the brain can reset the brain’s electrical prompts, stopping unwanted activation of spinal reflexes. According to Oleson, “Pain sensations that are due to irritated nerves can be relieved by the normalizing of pathological, hypersensitive reflex pathways that interconnect the ear microsystem and the somatotopic brain.”
Consult an auriculotherapy map to locate the correct reflex area to address a specific painful body part. Identification of a tender area on the ear typically corresponds with the most beneficial point to relieve the distally located pain.
Auriculotherapy is used throughout the world to reduce substance cravings and assist in the detoxification of addictive substances. Explanations for the effectiveness of auriculotherapy in facilitating drug independence derive from both a Western neurological conceptualization and a Traditional Oriental Medicine perspective. The first evidence of auriculotherapy’s in reducing substance cravings of drug addicts came from Dr. Wen of Hong Kong in the 1970s, and was expanded upon by Dr. Michel Smith, a physician who practices Oriental Medicine in New York City.
A Western neurological basis for using auriculotherapy as part of drug detoxification focuses on the area of the ear primarily used in addiction treatment, the concha. The two concave or hollow areas of the outer ear, the concha correspond to the autonomic nervous system via the vagus nerve and the brain’s hypothalamus. Influencing these nervous system components enhances relaxation and maintains balance. Auriculotherapy’s release of endorphins has the additional benefit of improving mood without the aid of the addicted substance.
Traditionally, five points are stimulated on the outer ear to aid the addiction recovery process. Possession of an illustrated ear map will facilitate locating each of the five points: Sympathetic, Shen Men, Heart, Liver and Lung.
Don’t skip the ears
While the majority of research has focused on ear acupuncture, auriculotherapy works with any type of ear stimulation. Many massage therapists include a general, feel-good ear rub at the conclusion of a session. However, learning the anatomy and body map of the ear can add a new level of healing to a massage. Since the ears provide direct access to the central and peripheral nervous systems, spending some time to focus on specific ear locations will benefit your client by amplifying the bodywork performed.
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Oleson, PhD, Terry, Auriculotherapy Manual, Health Care Alternatives, 1998.
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