What is the secret behind ear acupuncture?


Legend has it that pirates got their ears pierced at the center of the earlobe to improve their night vision, but what legend doesn’t say is where this idea came from.

The ancient Chinese made sense of the distribution of acupuncture points on the ear, which they found could affect different regions of the body, by mapping an image of an upside-down fetus onto it with the head (facing toward the midline of the body) at the bottom and the feet at the top. This puts the acupuncture point corresponding to the eyes at the center of the earlobe, right where those pirates were rocking their earrings to increase their chances of spotting a shipwreck-threat (or rival pirates) in the darkness.

It also puts the acupuncture points corresponding to the vital organs of the chest and abdomen, from the heart and lungs to the stomach and kidneys, in the depression bordered by the part of the ear called the antihelix that curves up from the top of the earlobe (see photo). This depression is called the concha. It is divided horizontally by a sort of ledge called the helix crus. The part above the helix crus is called the cymba concha; the part below it is called the cavum concha.

While the concha of the ear is pretty far away from the vital organs of the chest and abdomen that the ancient Chinese discovered it could affect, it has a direct link to them through the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the primary nerve that facilitates the body’s maintenance of or return to its “rest and digest” state. In other words, it is responsible for parasympathetic control of essential functions including heart rate, breathing, and digestion. What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but the vagus nerve relays impulses between distant regions of the body; in fact, it is the longest nerve of its kind. There is only one region of the body, however, where the vagus nerve comes to the surface of the skin: the concha.1

The acupuncture points on the concha are so powerful that four of them are combined with just one more acupuncture point, elsewhere on the ear, to treat complex conditions such as addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let’s hear it for ear acupuncture!


  1. Oleson T. Auriculotherapy Manual: Chinese and Western Systems of Ear Acupuncture. 3rd ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier Limited; 2003.