In this article I would like to give an insight into the sort of issues I treat as an Acupuncturist and also introduce the use of Auriculotherapy or Ear Acupuncture as an additional means of addressing chronic health problems.
Chronic Health Problems
Acupuncture is known by many as a wonderful solution for everyday stresses and strains which sometimes build up and make life difficult and tiring. Relieving stress and strains and restoring vitality is what a lot of people use acupuncture for.
One of the main strengths of Acupuncture is also to maintain health for people with complex illnesses or problems that have been lingering a long time. Technically a problem becomes defined as chronic if it has been present for longer than 3/4 weeks, but many complex problems linger for months, years, or even decades.
In this ‘chronic health category ‘ are problems with organic body systems giving rise to long term problems like migraines, asthma, body pain, insomnia, stomach problems and so forth, which people have suffered for years and often come to accept the loss of vitality as ‘normal’.
Some of these problems are accompanied by emotional shutdown characterised by depression, sadness, anxiety, anger amongst many. Invariably the weaknesses in the body and mind are linked and become cyclically reinforcing. Unlocking this downward spiral of health is a forte of Acupuncture and I see a lot of people in this category.
However, there are even more complex manifestations of chronic illness seen in increasing numbers in my practice. Some of these originate from a genetic weakness where the health has been compromised by an autoimmune disease , eg rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia etc.
Some of these genetic disorders are also at the base of health problems with multiple causes, such as, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and so on. These issues can often be ameliorated by acupuncture but it takes long term treatment to really make a difference.
Other types of complex problems I see are characterised by the breakdown of the body, mind and spirit by traumatic events, such as rape, deaths, violence, cruelty and so forth. These people respond well to acupuncture and auriculotherapy but again there is no easy solution to the life long consequences of major trauma.
And other mind and body breakdowns are simply the result of never ending stress which cannot be resolved easily and which come from things like loveless relationships, job insecurity, absence of affirmative parenting, loss of dear ones, dehumanising jobs, and all sorts of issues that weaken the body, mind and spirit. These issues are often part of the bigger picture of everyday illnesses and are the sort of complex issue that acupuncture can help to unravel.
What can Acupuncture and Auriculotherapy do?
Acupuncture is an holistic approach to problems that deplete our body and mind. It is not a solution by itself to the chronic health disorders listed above, but it is an effective intervention that pulls the body and mind together when repeated crises split us apart. It can also be used safely alongside conventional medical treatment. It lifts the spirit and re-engages the whole person in their recovery. At its best it helps people reinhabit their bodies and find peace of mind again.
Auriculotherapy is a kind of Acupuncture adjunct that can be used on its own or as part of an acupuncture treatment. It is a micro-system which uses the ears to detect physical, emotional and neurological dysfunction in the whole body, much as reflexology accesses the whole body via the feet. The treatment is via small needles placed in the ears, or sometimes small seeds placed on ear points, or even via low grade laser activation. In terms of intervention it is reasonably minimal and is also suitable for children for this reason.
Auricular treatments date back to 450 BC but most of the modern discoveries come from research carried out in the 1950’s which found that points on the ear corresponded to anatomical locations on the body and could be accessed to treat both pain, organic dysfunction , psycho-emotional distress and neuro-vascular problems.
Auriculotherapy has been found to especially help soldiers returning from war zones in a traumatised state with recurring flashbacks and severe psycho-emotional dysfunction, now commonly called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
These dats it is understood that many people suffer from PTSD, not just soldiers, this being a result of ‘ war zone’ type experiences that go on in so-called everyday life!
It is common for survivors of major traumas to experience PTSD, and in my practice I treat eg.women who have been abused or raped when younger, or people who have been bullied from an early age, or people who have survived a major car accident, or police and fire fighters who have seen too much tragedy and destruction, as examples of this.
Acupuncture and Auriculotherapy can really help and has been used in all sorts of trauma situations;
In 2002 a survey by a psychiatry department in Greenwich Village, New York, of 225 of those who had survived the Twin Towers inferno, asked what had been most useful in their recovery.
They listed in order of priority, Acupuncture, Massage, Yoga, and EMDR ( eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) ( see’ The Body Keeps the Score’, 2014, Van der Kolk).
Studies using neuro-imaging since 2005 confirm that Acupuncture can unlock the overload on the brain which comes from repeated or severe trauma (see below).
How Trauma affects the Brain
With recent advances in neuroscience and neuro-imaging using MRI scans of the brain, there has been confirmation that therapies such as Acupuncture can make a real impact on stress disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These scans have shown that areas of the brain to do with fear show rapid regulation under acupuncture treatment (see Van der Kolk above) and that Auriculotherapy in particular can unlock problems with the functioning of the brain (see below).
To understand how acupuncture and auriculotherapy help unlock trauma we need to briefly explain how the brain works…
Without going into too much technical jargon, the brain has different ways of responding to perceived dangers and threats. When we feel endangered and the alarm bells ring in the brain the first place that is automatically triggered is the animal or reptilian or emotional brain which lies in the brain stem in the sub-occipital cortex. This is where our first instinctive reactions come from (‘ the fight or flight ‘ instincts) and it involves the arousal of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
For a few moments the animal brain takes over and it partially shuts down the higher brain which is in the prefrontal cortex ( or forehead). The higher brain is where the executive functions of planning and consideration take place, where we rationally work out our best options and make reasoned decisions. It will pick up distress signals coming from the animal brain and start to work out what to do. If the fight or flight instinct is successful and we escape danger then we recover our equilibrium and regain our senses and our higher brain once more becomes a calm place of self awareness and perception.
The filtering out of perceived threats to our well-being will however start to break down if there are repeated arousals of stress hormones which simply swamp the body’s ability to respond rationally. Neuro-imaging has shown that highly emotional states of intense fear, sadness, and anger all increase the activity in the sub cortical animal brain, which significantly reduces the activity in the frontal lobe. When this happens the inhibitory capacities of the frontal lobe break down and people lose sense and perspective and go into a heightened animal-response state that does not release. People in this state will typically become enraged by minor frustrations, or emotionally numb or catatonic, and be unable to feel their bodies. Theses people are trapped in a powerful vortex and this state can continue for many years in some cases.
The key to unlocking this viscous cycle is to allow the two sides of our brain to re-establish communication, ie to get the rational brain and emotional brain back in equilibrium.
The bridge between the two lies in the ‘limbic brain’ where important processors and modulators lie such as the thalamus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cingulate gyrus, and the hypothalamus.
This is where sensory input of danger is sorted out into significance and categories and then sent to the higher brain for interpretation.
Neuro-imaging has shown that this neural pathway becomes dysfunctional if repeatedly battered by trauma. These people are locked into the original stimulus or trauma and are often unable to release their trauma via talking or counselling and mindfulness alone because their higher brain cannot make contact with their lower brain. It has been shown for example that when traumatised people are asked to recall their original feelings of being traumatised , the blood supply to the amygdala and hippocampus shuts down and the person is unable to recall or process these feelings, so staying locked in the original heightened state of arousal.
These people need a bottom up regulation which involves recalibrating the autonomic nervous system which originates in the brain stem. The therapies that will help will involve breath, movement, touch and energy balancing which work below the conscious mind, primarily yoga, bodywork, acupuncture, and Auriculotherapy.
Acupuncture has always been an effective means of ‘zoning out’ where patients are able to drop into the subconscious quiet space of the body and mind, the space where real change can take place. Again this has been scientifically tested by the use of MRI scans on the brain on people undergoing acupuncture treatment, and recording the quietening down of brain activity as soon as the needles are administered.
Interestingly Auriculotherapy studies have shown that the body points found in the ear are connected to the autonomic nervous system, I.e. to the part of the nervous system that comes from the animal brain. People who have Auriculotherapy report that they drop into a very deep place in their mind and body. Being able to access the workings of the animal brain is very important in unlocking the chronic trauma and shock patterns discussed above.
Acupuncture and Auriculotherapy are two of the most effective ways of enabling psycho-emotional processing particularly when verbal/counselling or drug interventions cannot alter the deeper mind blocks. In this respect , massage, bodywork and yoga, and general physical exercise are also useful and combine well with acupuncture.
Once these deeper blocks are removed and the person regains a sense of body mind connection then the person is more likely to benefit from counselling and psychotherapy, and again these therapies combine well with Acupuncture .
Being able to reinhabit our bodies is ultimately the pathway to better health – Acupuncture, Auriculotherapy, yoga, bodywork and other body and mind therapies are all ways we can help this to happen.