A new nomenclature for auricular acupuncture: The ultimate in Tooth Fairy science

Acupuncture is nothing more than a theatrical placebo.

I wish I could take credit for the term “theatrical placebo” to describe acupuncture, just as I wish I could take credit for coining the term “quackademic medicine” to describe the unfortunately increasing infiltration of quackery into academic medical centers and medical schools and as I wish I could take credit for the term “Tooth Fairy science” to describe doing scientific studies on a phenomenon that has not been proven to exist, but alas I cannot. I can, however, use the terms as I see fit, even if it might annoy some believers in acupuncture and other alternative medicine modalities that have no definable, demonstrable effect on any disease or medical condition detectable in randomized controlled clinical trials.

I can take credit, however, for pointing out that the history of “traditional Chinese medicine” was retconned by Chairman Mao Zedong. (I don’t think anyone thought to borrow a term from comics and TV to describe the rewriting of history that Mao did to portray TCM as somehow being a single unified ancient and powerful system of medicine, so that he could sell it to his people (and later the world) as a viable alternative to “Western” medicine that should in fact be “integrated” into it. It’s a process that’s still going on today. Indeed, as I like to say, Chairman Mao was the father of “integrative medicine,” at least with respect to “integrating” TCM into science-based medicine despite the lack of evidence that much, if any, of it worked, except for the occasional lucky guess.

However, as ridiculous as acupuncture can be, with its basis in ideas rooted in prescientific vitalism that claim that sticking needles into anatomically nonexistent “meridians” can somehow redirect the flow of “life energy” (qi) to heal, there is a form of acupuncture that is even more ridiculous than that, and it’s auricular acupuncture. Basically, the idea behind auricular acupuncture is that there is a homunculus of the human body on the external ear, usually with the head near the earlobe and the feet near the triangular fossa (the upper part of the ear). Basically, in auricular acupuncture, an acupuncturist sticks smaller, shorter needles into the external ear, the location determined according to the homunculus to target the organ or body part that is diseased or in pain. This mapping generally corresponds to similar maps developed for that other form of homunculus-based quackery, reflexology. These are a couple of excellent examples of Tooth Fairy science, in which one studies the amount of money the Tooth Fairy leaves per tooth or the phases of the moon when she is most likely to come but never bothered to show that the Tooth Fairy exists in the first place. In this case, it is the existence of a homunculus mapping different organs to areas on the external ear that has never been demonstrated.

Sadly, auricular acupuncture is the preferred form of acupuncture that’s been adapted to “battlefield acupuncture” (I kid you not), where our military (yes, our military) is training medics and other healthcare providers in its ranks to use auricular acupuncture right on the battlefield. Meanwhile, military hospitals and the VA medical system are rapidly adopting the same quackery.

Here’s an example of such a homunculus (click to embiggen):

Of course, alternative medicine being alternative medicine and quacks being quacks, there is no evidence for the above homunculus, and other maps have appeared, some quite complex, like this one:

So naturally, given the rapidly expanding complexity of their quackery, the quacks practicing auricular acupuncture need a new homunculus. They need a new system that can incorporate the rapidly expanding list of areas to map to the ear. Not surprisingly, there are quackademic medical “researchers” who are more than willing to provide just such a system. Behold, published online ahead of print in that repository of quackademic medicine, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a “study” that provides just what cutting edge auricular acupuncture researchers need, a New Universal Nomenclature of Auriculotherapy. (No, I didn’t capitalize that. The authors did. Humble, aren’t they?) The authors, David Alimi, MD, and Jacques E. Chelly, MD, PhD, MBA, are both based at the University of Pittsburgh, in the Departments of Anesthesia (Alimi and Chelly) and Orthopedics (Chelly). I do find it appropriate that Dr. Chelly has an MBA, because, of course, the business possibilities for auricular acupuncture are endless.

So what is the justification for needing a new system of nomenclature for auricular acupuncture? I’ll let Alimi and Chelly explain:

Auricular acupuncture (Auriculotherapy) has gone through the centuries, and, in particular, the last 40 years, going from traditional to modern. By word of mouth, from empirical practice to efficient medicine, it was slowly approved, thanks to neuroimaging progress, and has become, at least, a part of neuroscience.

Since the rediscovery of Auriculotherapy by Paul Nogier in 1957 in Lyon (France), and his brilliant vision of a fetus curled up in the ear pavilion, presaging the understanding of his somatotopic bases, modern neuroscientific knowledge has allowed us, as neurophysiologists, to bring understanding of the neurophysiological bases of its action.

Since this scientific certification, its development, universal propagation, and academic education have never stopped developing, just like the multiplication of clinical and experimental study publications.

After Dr. Paul Nogier’s initial cartography of the ear, multiple cartographies have been developed by different authors/countries/schools. Until recently, the construct of these cartographies was anatomically based. Basically, the ear was divided in anatomic zones (helix, Antihelix, Tragus, Lobule, etc.) and each zone was subdivided in areas. This led to the description of each point by a letter referring to the zone and a number referring to an area within the zone.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognized it in 1987 and developed its first International Nomenclature in 1990 (Fig. 1). Its continuous development currently requires an update of its international standardization.

The WHO? Et tu, WHO? Sadly, it’s true. The WHO did come up with a nomenclature for auricular acupuncture, which was published in 1991. It’s a simultaneously depressing and hilarious read, pure pseudoscience, a blot on the WHO forever. Fortunately, I haven’t been able to find anything on the WHO website like it that’s more recent, other than a couple of papers that have references about auriculotherapy or auricular acupuncture in them.

But what about Paul Nogier? Who is he? Or, rather, who was he, given that he died over 20 years ago? Well, helpfully, there is a website that tells all about him and how he “discovered” auricular acupuncture. I got a bad feeling about Nogier from the very first paragraph:

The XIXth and the XXth centuries were the centuries where the chemistry was omnipotent and where the medical therapy was based upon this chemistry. For every disease, a chemical drug. For every symptom, a molecule. It was very rare in the XXth century that someone explored new physical paths for therapy. Dr. Paul NOGIER, who received a formation as an engineer, looked at the individual with an eye of a physicist. He understood that the biological systems were not only sensitive to active chemical substances but also to physical stimulations. Therefore he systematically tried to find physical therapies to be used in the treatment in order to avoid the secondary effects of the chemical drugs. As soon as he graduated in medicine in Lyon, he focused his interest on homeopathy, as the homeopathic granule liberated from any chemical substance, finds its action through the physical electromagnetic information. Afterwards, he studied manual medicine and later acupuncture.

Yep. Even though he was a physician, Nogier was a practitioner of The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy. He was also into other forms of woo, like “energy medicine.” Indeed, he claimed to have discovered “through painstaking research with the subtle energies of the body” three frequencies that “stimulate the creation of our body tissues.” His “finding” with respect to this was described by Dr. Charles McGee, who attended one of Nogier’s lectures in 1975:

He must have been astounded by the orderliness of a pattern he discovered. He found that specific body tissues were in resonance with specific frequencies according to their embryologic origin. … I believe this single finding will one day be recognized as one of the greatest discoveries of medicine, possibly worth a Nobel Prize for Nogier.

Vibrations. It’s always the vibrations with quacks. I know I’ve said that before. Maybe I should say: Le vibration. C’est toujours le vibration. Oddly enough, poor Dr. Nogier died without ever being awarded a Nobel Prize.

Vibrations or not, this next part will sound very familiar to those of you familiar with the history of chiropractic and how D.D. Palmer “discovered” chiropractic:

In 1951, Paul NOGIER received in his consultation a patient, who explained to him that he was relieved from a sciatica pain by a cauterisation on the ear carried out by a quack in Marseille, Madame BARRIN. Following this observation, Paul NOGIER examined the external ear and tried to understand why this strange cure took place. It will take him more than 30 years to ascertain the mechanisms of the ear properties.

Yep. A patient with a “miracle cure,” although this miracle cure isn’t as impressive as what Palmer claimed, the cure of someone almost deaf by a “pop” in his spine. Poor auricular acupuncture. It can’t even come up with an impressive origin story, either. However, just like every good quack who invented a medical treatment (or, in this case, almost a system of medicine) out of whole cloth, Nogier has been portrayed as laboring many years to figure out that there supposedly exist points in the ear like acupuncture that appear as soon as “pain or functional disorder is provoked” in the body. Supposedly, these points can be detected either by pain sensitivity or with equipment designed to detect electrical impulses in the skin. According to Alimi and Chelly, it is known (obligatory Game of Thrones reference) that the surface of the external ear carries areas of lower resistance that appear in the case of the presence of a functional disorder. It is (also) known that “every point on the ear corresponds to a well defined part of the body” and that a “real cartography is present on the ear.”

Using that idea as a jumping off point, man, oh, man can the adherents of auricular acupuncture do up some sciencey quackademic medicine studies to justify their woo! In this case, Alimi and Chelly reported on how they used electronic database searches from 1958 to 2012 to find different formulations of Auricular Acupuncture Points (AAPs). They then claim to have studied brain dissections and to have “proved the neurophysiological correlations existing between auricular displays and their brain correspondences.” Hilariously, they claim to have found that the middle of the corpus callosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) is the “epicenter of the somatotopic organization of the brain homunculus.” Funny, but that’s news to neuroscientists, I’m sure! In any case, the authors used this risibly unbelievable analysis to propose a new way to divide up the ear for purposes of auricular acupuncture. It involves a semicircle of an angular value of 180°, which they divided into 20 equal angles (that is, 9°. The called this the “Segmentogram,” which covers the totality of the surface of the auricle. Overall, this system divides the lateral ear in 189 areas and the medial ear in 89 areas. It’s easier just to look at the illustrations (click to embiggen):

And these areas of the ear supposedly map to organs and body parts (click to embiggen):

It’s really complicated; so it must be right, right?

Wrong.

There are no neuroanatomic correlates to suggest that there is any sort of mapping between body parts and organs to specific areas on the external ear. This is the ultimate in Tooth Fairy Science, which is basically doing studies on a phenomenon that has not yet been shown to exist. Sadly, there’s a lot more where that came from in quackademic medicine.