Treating the Whole Body in the Ears: Auricular Acupuncture & the NADA Protocol

Photo Credit: @earseeds on Instagram

In acupuncture, the different points in which needles are inserted lie along different energy (qi) channels/meridians that flow through your body, and each point has a different function in helping to address certain health conditions and bring you into balance. In other words, acupuncture points are not random! As a practitioner, one place that I love focusing on for treatment, and always make sure to incorporate into a whole body acupuncture session, is the ear. The ear has dozens of acupuncture points, and because of this, it is often referred to as a microsystem—or a miniature mirror of the larger body. Auricular acupuncture is especially effective in the reduction of stress and anxiety—something we all might be feeling a little too much of these days. So read on to get a better understanding of what auricular acupuncture is and how it can benefit you!

What is Auricular Acupuncture?

If you look at the chart below, you’ll see that the points on the ear link to different areas of the body, in a sort of reverse order. So at the bottom, you have points that relate to the head and neck, and as you go up the ear, you get internal organs, until you reach the top, on which you have points corresponding to the limbs and feet. As with all acupuncture, hair-thin, sterilized needles are inserted into these different ear points based on a patient’s unique diagnosis.

From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, the evidence for the importance of the ear in healing is overwhelming. We have a total of 12 primary meridians or channels running through our bodies, separated equally into yin and yang meridians. All the yang meridians run directly into the ear or around the ear. The six yin meridians connect with the ear directly or by connecting with other yang meridians. With all this energy flowing through and connecting at our ears, it makes sense that they are an effective and vital treatment site.

In addition, the ear is a helpful site of pathology for the conditions of the body. According to Terry Oleson, author of the fourth edition of the Auriculotherapy Manual: Chinese and Western Systems of Ear Acupuncture, specific problems in the body can manifest in the ear through dark spots, flakiness, discoloration, or tenderness, to name a few. So a patient may not even be aware of certain issues they are experiencing, or may be unable to fully articulate them, but a trained practitioner can examine the ear and give a proper diagnosis. The ear also overall does not have major vessels or nerves, so pain and tissue damage as a result of ear acupuncture is very unlikely.

What are the benefits of Auricular Acupuncture?

Because the ear is a microcosm of the larger body, you can treat a myriad of ailments through ear acupuncture. Auriculotherapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of insomnia and other sleep disorders, drug addiction, PTSD, chronic pain, anxiety and depression, and migraines; it can also aid in smoking cessation, lowering blood pressure, and suppressing appetite for those with weight issues. It is unique in that it has been proven to treat both chronic and acute anxiety. A study published in Anesthesia & Analgesia found that adult patients about to undergo surgery who received auricular acupuncture needles for 48 hours pre-operation reported decreased levels of anxiety during that time period, most as early as 30 minutes after the insertion of the needles.

Aside from the many benefits listed above, auricular acupuncture is very “user-friendly”: patients do not have to lie down and basically stop everything else they were doing while the needles go to work. Instead, they are able to get up, walk around, do other things.This is why it’s an especially effective treatment for patients with PTSD or other trauma disorders, heightened anxiety or drug addiction. You might not think about it if you’re a regular acupuncture patient, but having to lie completely still and do nothing for 30 minutes can be excruciating for some people. In fact, it’s been proven so effective for the treatment of drug addiction there is a dedicated practice within auriculotherapy for just this need: the NADA protocol.

What is the NADA Protocol?

NADA, or National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, is a group auricular acupuncture practice in which a patient will receive up to 5 small needles in specific points in their ear and then will sit in silence with other recipients in a group setting for around 45 minutes while the needles take effect. The 5 insertion points of the NADA protocol are very commonly used by acupuncturists in private practice for a variety of conditions in combination with a whole body treatment. These points are:

  • Autonomic Point, which relaxes the nervous system and helps patients get back into parasympathetic function (as opposed to “fight or flight” sympathetic function)
  • Shen Men or “divine gate,” which reduces anxiety and inflammation and provides a grounding effect
  • Kidney Point, which calms deep-seated fears and heals internal organs
  • Liver Point, which helps detoxify and purify the system
  • Lung Point, which promotes aeration and boosts energy

NADA is so effective in the treatment of drug addiction because it is drug-free, cost-efficient, and can be combined easily with other therapies including counseling and medical support. According to, the official NADA website, NADA also minimizes withdrawal symptoms and leads to an “easier connection with counseling” and a “discovering of inner quiet and strength.” I use the NADA protocol often in my practice in combination with whole body acupuncture sessions and find it incredibly effective. Even if you are not suffering from PTSD or addiction issues, as you have seen, the ear is a treasure trove when it comes to acupuncture and healing!