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Bad Science Lends a Friendly Ear to Ear Seeds

According to a recent trend, healing any part of your body is as simple as rubbing your ear… but is there any evidence that this bedazzled form of acupressure actually works?

If you’re scrolling through Instagram while waiting in line at the grocery store, you might have stumbled upon ear seeds. The photos show close-ups of ears dotted with tiny piercings assembled like constellations. It may look like the latest fashion statement—and for some, it is—but there is often more to it than meets the eye. Some people believe that these microdermal piercings have healing properties. As the old real estate mantra goes, it’s all about “location, location, location.”

These piercings are meant to be played with during the day, touched reassuringly to recover from anxiety, to ease pain, or to lose weight. In a less invasive version of the protocol, actual seeds (often from a plant genus called Vaccaria) are taped onto specific spots on the ear and must be rubbed regularly, as if a medical genie might materialize.

This trend is simply the latest incarnation of ear acupuncture (in the case of piercings) and ear acupressure (in the case of the seeds). Is there any evidence that it works?

Your ear is an inverted fetus

There is so much to be said about acupuncture and its ear-fetishizing sibling, but I’ll stick to the TL;DR (that’s “Too Long; Didn’t Read” for the old fogeys, Internet speak for “Cliff’s Notes”).

Acupuncture is based on the belief that our body has “rivers” along which a life force can move. It was brought back into fashion during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Thin needles are inserted at seemingly specific points to allow the life force to flow better. There are hundreds of these points, and many different flavours of acupuncture using different maps, so it’s no surprise that acupuncturists don’t agree with each other as to where the points really are.

Ear acupuncture is not Chinese; it was conceived in 1957 by a French neurologist, Paul Nogier, who witnessed a physician treating sciatica by cauterizing part of the patient’s ear. He also thought that the ear resembled an inverted fetus, and this meant that stimulating the stomach of this fetus by planting a needle in the ear would take care of stomachache. This bizarre philosophy has less to do with acupuncture than it does with reflexology, which similarly posits that every part of the human body can be stimulated somewhere on the foot.

An earful of bad studies

I read a lot of systematic reviews of ear acupuncture and ear acupressure for this piece. A lot. I hadn’t realized just how many studies had been done on the practice, and how many people had looked at all of these studies to try and synthesize the gist of the evidence.

And even though the evidence looked positive, I found myself reading some version of the same statement over and over again: “The studies were of poor methodological quality and at high risk for bias.” What does that mean?

When looking at the veritable torrent of scientific studies, it is crucial to remember that not all studies are created equal. It would bring me such joy to see every research project designed with exquisite rigour in mind, but alas, reality is quite different. If we conduct experiments to reduce the ways in which we fool ourselves, to arrive at an objective truth, our attempts often fall far short, especially in the area of alternative medicine. We know what needs to be done to reduce the risk of bias (of our results deviating from truth), but we often don’t apply all of these rules. Sometimes it’s sloppiness, sometimes it’s a lack of resources, occasionally it’s ignorance, and in many cases involving alternative medicine, it’s because we want our results to show what we already believe.

The studies on ear acupuncture and acupressure are of low quality because they commit one or many of the following scientific sins. They tested too few people, which means the results are little more than random noise. When they compared real therapy to a fake version of it, the participants could tell which group they were in, meaning they might be compelled to report feeling better with the real deal to please the observer, a well-known phenomenon in clinical research. Sometimes the group receiving the real intervention was quite different from the group receiving the sham intervention, which is a no-no. The people administering the ear acupuncture were almost always not blinded to the intervention, which means they could have influenced the participants without even meaning to. (One way to blind them would be for one person to indicate the points to hit on a piece of paper and for a separate, non-acupuncturist to apply on the participant the needles or seeds according to the drawing.)

Besides these issues with how the clinical trials were designed and conducted, there’s always the exoticism of ear acupuncture that must be taken into account. Professor Edzard Ernst, known for his academic criticisms of alternative medicine, commented on a trial showing the superiority of ear acupressure compared to massage therapy for pain, anxiety and depression, and remarked that massage is “old hat.” Acupressure is “exotic”, which could mean that participants were more likely to report being helped by it. Novelty can increase expectations and perceptions. And finally, many of the studies were conducted in China, where virtually every trial of acupuncture always turns out positive, whereas trials done in other countries show much more variability. Acupuncture being such an integral part of China’s cultural identity, it is very difficult for its researchers to publish studies that show the intervention does not work. This publication bias must also be put in the balance.

A theatre of deception

Given the low quality of the numerous studies done on ear acupuncture and ear acupressure, combined with its very low plausibility (the ear is an inverted fetus you can stimulate to heal the corresponding organ?), the only sensible conclusion to reach right now is that these interventions are part of a theatre of deception.

And it’s not necessarily a safe one. Using ear seeds instead of needles may give the illusion of safety, but be warned: these tiny seeds could very easily fall into the ear canal, necessitating a medical intervention to remove them.

I don’t want to dismiss the temporary empowerment we can feel by doing something, anything, to address illness. But ear seeds, the new kids on the acupuncture block, are little more than a security blanket for the Instagram generation.

Take-home message:
- Ear seeds are either tiny piercings or small objects like seeds that are taped to specific points on the ear in an attempt to improve your health
- Ear seeds are a trendier version of ear acupuncture or ear acupressure
- Scientific studies of ear acupuncture/acupressure are of low quality and the theory behind the intervention does not make much sense, which means that any reported improvement in those study participants was probably due to placebo effects.


@CrackedScience

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