Ear Seeds: About This Acupressure Technique

TikTokers have been raving lately about the supposed health benefits of a healing practice that dates back thousands of years: ear seeding. Also referred to as auricular acupressure, it's a noninvasive technique that stimulates pressure points on the ear. It's similar to the technique of auricular acupuncture, and has a similar map of points, but does not use needles.

“Ear seeding is the process of placing tiny metallic beads [or actual seeds, ceramic beads, or magnetic beads] attached to a small piece of adhesive material, like tape, in strategic locations on the surface of the ear,” says Sue Kim, MD, a medical acupuncturist at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California.

Since January 2021, the hashtag #earseeding has garnered 200,000 views and counting on TikTok, while the channel “ear seeds” has racked up 81.4 million views. Many TikTokers claim, and some emerging research postulates, that this acupressure technique — a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) — may reduce chronic pain, alleviate stress, and help with weight loss, among myriad other potential health benefits.

Some popular TikTok users have made personal claims: Grace Bonjibon (149,800 followers) says she uses the sticky beads for migraine relief. Ava Lee (1,400,000 followers) says her digestion has immensely improved after using ear seeds. Giselle Boxer (12,800 followers) who runs Acu Seeds, an ear-seeding studio in the United Kingdom, claims these tiny stickers can help with stress, fatigue, focus, sleep, and more.

The trend, for TikTokers at least, revolves around at-home ear seed products you can buy over the counter and online that are similar to those used in acupuncture clinics. As with other complementary and alternative therapies, though, it’s best to visit a licensed acupuncture practitioner to find out how (and whether) to use them for your specific concerns.

Here’s what you should know about using ear seeds, according to health experts and emerging scientific research.

What Is Ear Seeding?

Ear seeding is a traditional therapy rooted in TCM, and falls under the modality of auriculotherapy, a form of complementary and alternative medicine, which is based on the belief that the entire body and its systems (reproductive, nervous, digestive, respiratory, et cetera) can be reflected in the map of the ear (called a microsystem), which has various pressure points that correspond to various organs and systems.

According to an article published in Medical Acupuncture in June 2019, the earliest references to ear seeding were discovered in Chinese texts dating back to about 221 B.C.

Ear seeding, essentially an acupressure technique specific to the ear, employs small thin stickers (often latex), each roughly a half centimeter in diameter. They generally contain a ripe seed from the Vaccaria plant, commonly referred to as cow herb, cow basil, or soapwort, or a metal or ceramic bead, and are placed in the outer ear. Unlike acupuncture, ear seeding doesn’t employ needles. When the ear seeds on these auricular acupoints are massaged, they may help address physiological and psychological symptoms like inflammation, pain, stress, and fatigue, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Ear seeds don’t pierce the skin, but stimulate acupoints, making them [potentially] effective for many chronic conditions,” says Jill Blakeway, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine in private practice in New York City. Blakeway says auricular acupressure via ear seeding is traditionally believed to affect every part of the body through the minute acupressure points in the ear.

How Ear Seeding Works

Blakeway explains that traditional Chinese medicine views the body as self-regulating, and ear seeds — which she considers to be “a gentle version of acupuncture” — prompt the body to heal.

Exactly how ear seeds ease health issues like insomnia or anxiety is a more complex and under-researched question, says Grant Chu, MD, an assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the Center for East-West Medicine at University of California in Los Angeles.

“Stimulation of these points is thought to promote the release of endorphins, which inhibit pain signals,” says Dr. Chu. He notes that the exact process from stimulation to relief in the body is not well understood. Some past research on auriculotherapy, which includes the various ways auricular points can be stimulated (acupuncture, electroacupuncture, acupressure, lasering, cauterization, moxibustion) suggests that the therapeutic effect of stimulation in certain parts of the ear may reduce activity in the neural pathways that signal pain.

Possible Benefits of Auriculotherapy in General

Chu says that higher-quality studies specific to ear seeding are needed to confirm these benefits, but he says auricular acupressure may aid people with health concerns such as anxiety, chronic and acute pain, insomnia, smoking cessation, difficulty losing weight, and perhaps high cholesterol. There are fewer studies on ear seeding (auricular acupressure) than on auricular acupuncture, but since ear seeding stimulates similar points, there may be some overlap in their effects. More research is needed.

Two recent meta-analyses referencing the potential health benefits of ear seeds may be the beginning of a deeper look at this age-old practice.

A review published in September 2020 in Pain Management Nursing examined 46 past studies on the effects of auricular acupressure via ear seeding on acute and chronic pain management. It found ear seeding to be an effective treatment for most of the acute pain conditions in the studies, including low back pain and abdominal discomfort, in combination with other interventions, regardless of the pain intensity. It also found acute pain participants needed a shorter duration of ear-seeding therapy than those with chronic pain to experience relief.

Another review, published in June 2019 in Medicine, examined seven studies on obese or overweight individuals. It revealed that auricular acupressure alone, or in combination with diet and exercise shifts, helped participants reduce their weight and waist circumference and decrease their body fat percentage. It did conclude though that “further vigorous studies that use double-blind randomized controlled design are needed to verify these findings.”

At-Home Application vs. a Visit to a Licensed Professional

While experts agree that both at-home application and application by a medical professional may achieve results, there are some things to consider before you choose one or the other.

First, it’s important to note that applying ear seeds at home brings a risk of user error. Blakeway says most at-home applications come with small maps that identify acupoints in your ear for easy application, but this may not be the best way to apply them. “I think it’s best to see a licensed professional first, because they can help you choose the most effective point to fit your diagnosis and they can make sure you’re putting them in the correct places,” she says.

After you have first consulted with a licensed acupuncturist, Dr. Kim says applying them at home may be empowering for some. She says it’s a technique that the patient has control over and one that doesn’t necessarily require an appointment, once you’ve met with, and made a plan under the guidance of, a professional provider.

Risks of At-Home Application of Ear Seeds

Kim notes that at-home ear seeds are unlikely to have any side effects or issues for most people. “The risks are minimal,” she says. “Theoretically, they may cause an abrasion or laceration if pressed too hard and too long, but that would be unusual.”

A review published in June 2020 in Pain Medicine evaluated individual auricular adverse events and found that auricular acupressure (ear seeding) was generally safe and much less risky than forms of auricular therapy that use needles.

Blakeway notes ear seeds are low risk because they're noninvasive. “Because they don’t break the skin, they are a very safe treatment,” Blakeway says.

Chu warns that while ear seeds are generally safe, user error does occur. If they are massaged too roughly or too often — more than two to three times per day — complications may arise. “Locally, the seeds may cause discomfort or skin irritation,” Chu says. “Sometimes overstimulation may cause drowsiness or dizziness, so it is important that ear seeds be placed by trained providers.”

Risk Factors of Ear Seeding With a Licensed Professional

Most experts agree that the health risks of ear seeds applied by a licensed professional are minimal — and they may provide more benefits than at-home application.

Christina Burns, an acupuncturist in private practice in New York City, says a professional can provide more efficient relief. “Having someone trained in this can help identify the best [pressure] point combinations,” she says. “They could also listen to your story and help assess where to focus.”

What Does Ear Seeding Cost?

Price may also be something to consider. At-home ear seeds range anywhere from $5 to $50 per packet, whereas professional sessions can range anywhere from $25 to $100 per session, depending on location and other factors, Kim says.

Burns says price ranges by practitioner, but her practice starts at $125 for ear seeding applications.

Who Might Explore Ear Seeding and Who Should Avoid Ear Seeding

Experts agree that ear seeds are safe to use for most adults. “I [personally] use this technique for adults of all ages for a variety of complaints,” says Blakeway. Kim agrees, saying anyone 18 years of age or older who has felt benefits from acupuncture before, or who wants to try a new approach to therapy, could consider ear seeding.

That said, younger people should refrain from using ear seeds. “I don’t use ear seeds on small children because they can go into the ear canal if they dislodge them,” says Blakeway.

Additionally, Blakeway and Chu warn that people with latex allergies should avoid ear seeds. “If redness and discomfort appear, the ear should be evaluated for signs of an allergic reaction,” says Chu.

For a customized, safe approach to implementing ear seeds in your wellness routine, consult your professional healthcare provider and a licensed acupuncturist before you try it. “It’s usually helpful to have someone else with trained eyes and ears give directions and teach you how to do it yourself,” Burns says. “Most of my patients find that a licensed professional keeps them accountable and on track [so they book return visits]. But others are incredibly disciplined and self-directed and can figure it out themselves" with some guidance from her.

How to Safely Apply Ear Seeds Yourself

If you want to try applying ear seeds at home, and if you have already consulted your primary care provider and a licensed acupuncturist for self-application guidance and to ensure you’re a good candidate, follow these general instructions provided by Blakeway.

Application and Use

  • Wash and dry your ears carefully.
  • Use the chart that comes with the seeds and the guidance you received from your licensed practitioner to identify the correct pressure points for your intended use.
  • Apply the seeds using tweezers. (Feel free to use a mirror!)
  • Gently massage each ear seed two to three times. Leave seeds on for three days.

Safe Removal

  • After the three days, tilt your head forward toward the floor so the seeds don’t fall in your ear canal. Use your fingers or tweezers to pick them out.
  • Let the ear area rest for two to three days before you apply more seeds.

What First-Time Ear Seed Users Can Expect

If you’ve never tried them before, experts note ear seeds may cause you to feel a sense of “mild euphoria” upon application. “Like acupuncture, the euphoria is likely triggered by activation of the limbic system in the brain,” Kim says.

According to past research, when the body experiences tactile stimulation via acupuncture — believed to potentially share similarities to auricular acupressure stimulation — the limbic system, which controls our emotional experience, is directly affected. Additionally, a previous meta-analysis shows that acupuncture releases endorphins, which can result in a sort of “high.”

Kim, when working with her patients, commonly first places one ear seed to the pressure point location called “shen men” — an area of the ear situated at the top of the triangular fossa (the concave upper part of the ear). Kim says this location is the easiest to access and can provide a sense of calm and stress relief.

Kim also suggests limiting your seed application to between three and five seeds. “The locations may get muddled beyond that, and it also may become difficult to stimulate them,” she says.

If you choose the at-home route, under the guidance of your licensed acupuncturist, Blakeway advises you to write in a journal, noting the benefits you experience, any adverse symptoms, and how you feel. “Keep a record of your symptoms so you can evaluate if this modality is working for you,” she says.

The bottom line? Even though it seems more TikTokers are using ear seeds than ever before, it’s important to consult a medical professional trained in auricular acupressure or a licensed acupuncturist before you attempt any new therapeutic method.

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