by Dr. Kim Graham, Dr. TCM
Source: medicinal roots
When, after their acupuncture treatment, I tell my patients for the first time how I would like to apply seeds to various points in their ears, I get a look that simultaneously asks if I am joking, and perhaps more importantly, if they heard me correctly. The question that usually follows is “You want to put WHAT in my EARS?”
I understand their apprehension. After all, we have been taught from a very young age about the dangers of putting anything smaller than our elbows into our ears! So the idea of letting someone tape small seeds to his or her ears can be cause for some trepidation.
Firstly I should clarify that seed therapy can be used anywhere on the body, at specific acu-points, but more commonly, seeds are used as part of a specific type of treatment known as auricular (ear) therapy.
Auricular acupuncture and the use of the ear as a diagnostic tool are documented in some of the earliest texts on traditional Chinese medicine. The theories and methods of treatment described in these texts have been studied and developed over time into the highly specialized therapy that is in use today. Over the past 30 years there has been extensive research into the effectiveness of auricular therapy in the treatment of various mental/emotional problems (including the disease of addiction and PTSD) with tremendous results in favour if its efficacy.
Eerily accurate as a diagnostic tool, patients are generally shocked when a trained therapist can tell immediately without asking questions which hip, knee, or limb is painful, if there have been any fractures in the body, or if they have trouble sleeping or are suffering from nightmares. It is not magic. The answer is simple. The body never lies.
The ear is a micro-system. A virtual map of the entire body that is reflected on its surface. A therapist trained in auricular therapy reads the information presented by the ear and translates it into valuable diagnostic information. In terms of TCM practice, various diagnostic clues are noted. Things such colour, temperature, and visible veins are observed in order to shed light on how the corresponding area of the body is being affected.
Applying seed therapy to the ears after an acupuncture treatment can extend the active phase of treatment, allowing the patient to self-administer pressure to the points as needed or at regular intervals as prescribed by the practitioner.
The type of seed used is called the Vaccaria seed (Semen Vaccariae), commonly known as Cowherb or Soapwort seeds in the West. In traditional Chinese medicine, these seeds are known as the herb Wang Bu Liu Xing and belong to a class of herbs known to invigorate blood and remove stagnation (Qi). According to TCM theory, the two dominant factors present in painful conditions are the stagnation of Qi and Blood. This herb in particular has an effect on both, with greater emphasis on the blood.
For use in the ear, and other body parts, these seeds were chosen primarily for their size and evenness (small, smooth and resilient to the body’s oils) enabling them to provide sustained local stimulation to specific acu-points. However, their Blood and Qi moving properties cannot be overlooked as potentiating factors in treatment. Seed therapy is invaluable in the treatment of patients who have a fear of needles, or otherwise have strong physiological reactions to acupuncture. Each seed is typically held in place with a small strip of either tan or clear tape, and are virtually undetectable.
The treatment applications for seed and auricular therapy are numerous, and when performed by a qualified trained practitioner can be enormously beneficial.
A First Timer’s Experience with Acupuncture
As an arrogant, young, fairly active girl in her early 20’s, I strongly believe that any pain can be cured with rest (very minimal), ice (as in ice cream), a stretch or two (maybe for about 10 seconds), and some distraction (friends and beer). Or so I used to believe anyway. The Year 2012 was not my End of Days, but the beginning of My So-Called Migraine Life. After coining the term “whinegraine – the combination of excess whining and a brain-crushing, eye-popping migraine,” I decided to shed my pride and take action.
Now not only was going to the doctor a foreign concept to me, but I also had next to zero knowledge of acupuncture or even Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in general. Well, once, my father’s friend told me that acupuncture gave him decades of relief from his torn and shattered shoulder until his tongue became numb and slightly paralyzed. Of course, he had just finished his third sake and smoked two packs of a day, so perhaps these were the roots of his problem.
My first personal experience with treatment from Dr. Kim was back in the summer. She had given me some ear seeds after hearing me complain about constant nausea (suffice to say, I had just gotten back from a girls’ week in Cuba). She informed me that the abdomen region in my ear looked “angry” and I told her she was crazy. Then she taped little black seeds onto tiny pressure points on my ear I never knew existed, and I was left to ponder what I was about to harvest from the side of my head. Every time I started to forget about them, I would be reminded by a dull ache. But the ache was good; it distracted me from the nausea. After a couple days, they fell out in the shower. The relief from their presence actually translated right to my belly. It felt grounded— like it wasn’t about to flutter out of my mouth—but light and carefree, as though I was in a yogurt commercial. Okay, miracle medicine, you have my full attention!
So when the episodes of migraines became so frequent and unbearable, I began to wonder about the magic of needles.
I gave Dr. Kim a call, with still very little idea of what this appointment might entail. I walked into the familiar clinic feeling very out of place, but Dr. Kim welcomed me with her usual bubbly personality. Before I knew it we were in a dim, warm room. She took a quick but thorough medical history and got to work with her needles—pleasantly chatting all the while. Beginning with my feet and working up my body, she put needles in places that seemed completely random to anyone but herself. The first prick, close to my toes, was a bit of a surprise; but only because I let it be. I didn’t know what sensation to expect: painful, tingly, nothing? It was somehow all of those things. If you have ever had a bee sting or your ear pierced, divide that pain by ten. Afterwards came a tingly, fuzzy, slightly warm feeling; then it was followed by a slight pressure, and then essentially nothing. Without missing a beat, she carefully explained each one as she worked: its target organ, the movement of Qi, how it affects the body in terms of Western medicine. This one in your foot is for your liver, which facilitates movement and flow. That one in the leg was for the stomach, which boosts your energy. This large intestine point will give you release and relief. Why are we concentrating on these when the issue is the head? Because the entire body is one system.
“The entire body is one system.” This seems to be Dr. Kim’s mantra. Concentrating on the main problem does not fix the overall issue. If you’re driving home and the major road is blocked, it will take double the time and energy to get to your destination. If there is stagnation of energy in one part of the body, it has to work so incredibly hard to circulate to the rest. In my case, my poor head wasn’t getting enough traffic because of the roadblocks set up throughout some major areas that I thought were fine.
This totally made sense to me. Dr. Kim finished up her needlework and left me to my thoughts. I lay there thinking about muddled energy and mud and mud pies and pies and apples… A soft knock snapped me out of my daydream. Dr. Kim was back, but not with more needles. Cradling my head in her hands and gently passing it back and forth, she slowly released my (incredibly tight) neck by pulling ever so slightly upward. She explained that she was making my cervical spine less sticky—that sounds and feels delightful; please continue! Once during the procedure, she asked, “Do you have problems with your left hip?” and I answered in amazement, “Um, yes! My TFL (tensor fascia latae) is incredibly tight and flicks over the greater trochanter!” How did she know?! I stand by my previous answer: magic. Dr. Kim laughed and said it’s all in the body; you can learn how to read it.
After that wonderful treat, I was left again to relax. Maybe it was my imagination but I felt more energized, not as heavy or tight. A few minutes (or ten or an hour; I really could not tell you!), Dr. Kim came back to take the needles out.
I was starting to get antsy and the removal of needles could not have come any sooner. The dull ache in my right foot had turned into a nagging pain—although this may have been my own fault, as I had forgotten where I was momentarily and moved my toes. I recommend lying still! This isn’t hard to achieve usually, as it is a very relaxing atmosphere, but I’m notoriously impatient when it comes to my own health. Also, I had started to feel incredibly giddy (endorphins, hello!) and couldn’t help but wiggle and dance. As with the ear seeds, the relief I felt when the needles were gone was worth it. I came in feeling like a cold, hard chunk of cheddar cheese; I left feeling like a delicious pot of warm bubbly fondue.
“You will probably feel a bit dazed and maybe a little tired. That is completely normal, because your body is trying to readjust and repair itself and it can’t handle external stimulation. Take some time, take it easy,” cautioned Dr. Kim. Was that a doctor’s prescription, permission, recommendation to nap? I will take it!
Oh, and my head feels light and pain-free.