Ear acupuncture can help people lose weight, with better results if practitioners stimulated five points instead of just one, researchers from Korea claim in a study published in the BMJ journal Acupuncture in Medicine.

Auricular acupuncture was first used in France in 1956 by Dr. Paul Nogier. He noticed that patients’ backache was cured when they received a burn on the ear. Intrigued, he started mapping the ear, pinpointing the spots that correlate to various organs or systems in the body.

Dr. Nogier pictured the ear as a curled up fetus with its head pointing downwards, and began treating his patients by applying pressure to the spot associated with each organ.

For the study, the researchers compared the efficacy of acupuncture treatments in helping obese patients lose weight, comparing the standard Korean five point treatment with acupuncture using a single point of stimulation. They also included a control group who were given a “sham” treatment.

In a randomized controlled clinical trial, 91 Koreans were recruited – 16 men and 75 women – all of whom had a body mass index (BMI) equal to or greater than 23. None of the participants had received any other weight control treatments in the last 6 months.

The participants were randomly divided into three groups, one group to receive the five point acupuncture treatment, another the one point acupuncture treatment and the third group, the control “sham” treatment.

For the trial, the first group had small indwelling needles positioned at the five ear acupuncture sites – Shen-men, stomach, spleen, hunger, endocrine. These were covered with surgical tape and would remain in place for a week.

The following week, new needles would be inserted into the corresponding points on the other ear, with the process being repeated over the course of the 8 week trial.

The second group of participants followed the same treatment process but only had one needle inserted – at the hunger point.

The remaining group believed they were receiving the five point treatment, but the needles were removed removed immediately after insertion, although the surgical tape remained. The same doctor performed the procedure on all three groups.

All three groups were then asked to follow a restricted diet and asked not to take additional exercise during the trial.

BMIs, waist circumference, body fat mass, percentage body fat and blood pressure were all measured at the start and end of the trial, and at the midway point.

During the trial, 24 people dropped out – 15 of whom were in the control group, perhaps suggesting that they found it difficult to regulate their hunger and cope with the restricted diet.

But of the participants who completed the trial, there were significant differences in results. At the midway point, there were already noticeable differences in BMI with the five point treatment group showing a 6.1% reduction, the one point group a 5.7% reduction while the sham group showed no reduction at all. Both active treatment groups also showed weight loss.

These findings were supported by the final results, which also showed that the five point treatment group had reduced measures of body fat. The researchers did note that there were no significant differences in blood pressure between the three groups.

The researchers conclude:

Both five-needle acupuncture treatment generally used in Korean clinics and one-needle treatment at the hunger point appear to be effective in reducing body weight in the short term.”

They suggest that the five-needle treatment may be more effective at reducing waist circumference and abdominal fat.