Acupressure on the Ear Surprisingly Effective on Back Pain

Many patients with low-back pain have found relief through acupuncture. However, some report that it is not always convenient to frequently travel to a qualified provider for treatments, and worry about the cost of these visits, which are often not covered by insurance.

To test the effectiveness of this ancient, complementary technique for addressing back pain, a new study has investigated the use of acupressure, rather than acupuncture, on the ear, for easing back pain symptoms. In doing so, researchers hoped to eliminate some of the inconvenience and cost by allowing patients to manage their pressure points and visit a provider less often during the four-week study period.

The method, called auricular point acupressure (APA) is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and uses acupoints, or trigger points, on specific areas of the inner and outer ear to treat disease. It consists of small objects, such as seeds of botanical plants, to be applied to the patient's ear acupoints with waterproof tape. Once the seeds are applied by a trained therapist, patients can self-manage at home by applying pressure to the seeds.

While previous research had shown promising results of a week's worth of wearing the seeds and patients applying pressure, researchers sought more long-term benefits with this four-week study. They were surprised by the strong evidence of the efficacy of APA in their findings, which showed the method to be even more effective than research has shown acupuncture to be in easing low-back pain.

Participants included patients with chronic low-back pain. Some of the patients were treated with APA by a trained professional therapist. As a control, the other patients were given "sham" acupressure, whereby seeds were not positioned on the acupoints, but elsewhere on the ears.

The results showed more than a 70% improvement in pain intensity compared to baseline after four weeks of APA treatments. The patients also maintained this improvement at their one-month follow-up. These results were more dramatic than most studies available about acupuncture, which usually results in an average of about 30% improvement.

Similar to the results of this research team's previous findings about short-term benefits of APA, this study found that just one day after initiating APA treatment, patients experienced an overall 45% reduction in pain intensity, with the results increasing to a 56% pain reduction after the first week of treatment. However, the study authors were especially excited about the 73% pain reduction that participants reported after four weeks. The true acupoint group experienced superior improvement of pain intensity and low-back disability compared to the sham group.

In the interest of saving money and making treatment more convenient, the researchers noted that participants only received four weekly treatment sessions, whereas most acupuncture treatments require 6-12 sessions to achieve the greatest benefits. And like other conservative methods such as chiropractic, participants reported few adverse side effects from their treatment. In addition, they reported that it was not difficult to practice APA at home.

Previous research has found evidence of the efficacy of pressure point therapy on knee and calf pain. Many doctors of chiropractic are trained in the use of this method, and many others offer acupuncture or acupressure in their offices.


Yeh CH, Chien LC, et al. A randomized clinical trial of auricular point acupressure for chronic low back pain: a feasibility study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013 (online). doi: 10.1155/2013/196978.