Acupuncture for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome

by Jim Chalmers

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed when someone experiences a complex set of symptoms that appear after a person suffers severe psycho-emotional shock or trauma as a result of a serious life threatening event, childhood abuse, sexual abuse, torture or natural disaster. It is a frequently observed mental health issue for armed forces personnel returning from combat zones.

People suffering from PTSD are likely to experience symptoms that include nightmares, panic, anger, aggression, depression, denial, self-blame, anger and grief. A prolonged period of emotional numbness may manifest. Over time, those enduring this unresolved trauma may experience ‘flashbacks’ reliving the trauma again and again, outbursts of anger, dissociation from their loved ones, short-term memory loss, hypersensitivity to sudden noises, hyper-arousal and/or insomnia. Drug and alcohol abuse may occur.

Unfortunately too many of our veterans are returning from active duty experiencing some or all of these symptoms to varying degrees. Not all are diagnosed with PTSD, as the diagnosis requires that a person must be experiencing a strict set of these and other symptoms. That lack of a diagnosis does not reduce their suffering. It does however reduce their access to help.

If used early, psychological therapy and complementary healthcare approaches can be effective in resolving the trauma without recourse to drug therapy. One such approach, auriculotherapy, involves a form of ear acupuncture treatment that helps to clear inappropriate mind and body responses to traumatic memories. It is a treatment specifically designed for PTSD and is not the same as the commonly used ear acupuncture approach known as the ‘NADA protocol’ for the treatment of drug and alcohol withdrawal.

The advantage of this special treatment for PTSD is that it does not require the sufferer to have to recount his or her experience in detail for the therapy to work. The treatment can also be done without needles.

Auriculotherapy is aimed at addressing PTSD by treating parts of the brain affected by traumatic memories. One of these is a small part of the brain called the amygdala, which is often described as ‘the emotional brain’ and is responsible for processing the emotions and providing an emotional reaction to a situation. In a perceived crisis it may trigger a fight or flight response.

The theory is that that in those who have experienced a severe trauma and subsequent PTSD, the amygdala has preserved that traumatic memory as part of its early warning response which is triggered when certain sights, sounds, smells or recollections of the original trauma occur. The emotional and physical responses of fear, horror, sweating hands, racing heartbeat and panic then appear. Auriculotherapy tends to neutralize that programmed response of the amygdala and other parts of the brain. Patients relax, are able to sleep well and feel that anxiety lift; they find they can move on in life free from the trauma.

The Auriculotherapy treatment involves the application of fine sterile acupuncture needles to three specific points on the outside surface of both ears. As no two patients are the same, further acupoints on the ear surface or on the body are chosen based on individual needs. Needle phobic patients may be treated with low-intensity infra-red laser instead of needles.

This auriculotherapy treatment has proved effective for many sufferers of PTSD and has recently shown its benefits when used to treat victims of the floods in Australia and of the earthquake in New Zealand. Patients usually feel relief after the first treatment.

Jim Chalmers has had 22 years clinical experience in Acupuncture and Auriculotherapy and Chinese Medicine. He trained in Australia and China, is a former Vice President of the Australia Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association and lectures on auriculotherapy in Australia, New Zealand and Europe.