It began at Howard Community College four years ago as a smoking cessation program, but apparently few students were willing to kick the habit via auricular acupuncture — a form of alternative medicine that involves insertion of fine needles into the ear.

Yet HCC students were eager to know if the treatment offered other benefits, and when they heard that it could help them concentrate, relax and sleep better, many lined up to get stuck.

Now, the treatment is offered free on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at HCC's Wellness Center, and it has become so popular with students, faculty and staff that for some, it is part of their weekly routine.

"It's nice to have some time out to relax before you start the day," said HCC student Julie Moore, who added that the procedure has also improved her sleep. "I don't toss and turn as much. I feel like I have a more solid sleep."

The treatment is offered through the Tai Sophia Institute, a Laurel-based healing arts graduate school that provides community outreach wellness programs in the Baltimore area.

HCC Wellness coordinator Tara Rupp said the treatments began in 2007; more than 230 were performed. Last year, she said, more than 1,000 treatments were performed.

According to a recent informal survey of HCC students, teachers and faculty who each had received at least five treatments, faculty felt less anxious about teaching and students reported that their improved focus led to better study habits and better grades.

Those who take part sign a consent-to-treat form; no one under 18 is allowed to take part. The treatment involves using five needles in each ear to target acupuncture points that correspond with certain body parts. Targeting those points with needles is said to affect the corresponding body part, facilitating health and wellness.

"In Chinese medicine, you're not just talking about a [bodily] organ, it's called an official, and it has a body-mind-spirit dimension," said Sherrie Trede Black, a Tai Sophia clinic supervisor. "There are five [ear insertion] locations, and they have to do with the sympathetic nervous system, the heart, the kidney, the liver and the lung."

"The heart is about compassion," Black added. "The kidney is about will power. The liver is about having a clear plan. The lung is about inspiration. These points are very powerful to facilitate someone's healing."

Those who take part initially breathe in then exhale as the needle is inserted. Black said the five-needle procedure was originally used as detoxification treatments for drug and alcohol addictions, as well as for controlling cravings.

"The needles have that physical component of detoxifying because if you think about the lungs, the kidney and the liver they are organs of cleansing in the body," Black said.

Initially the sensation is that of a quick pinch but it wears off almost instantly. If the needles accidentally fall out they are not reinserted. At the end of the session, practitioners sweep the room with a magnet to ensure that all the needles are picked up.

"If someone is particularly apprehensive about needles, we might do one the first time, just so that they get to experience it and feel a little more confident that they can handle it," said Black.

HCC offers the procedure in a dimly lit room with relaxation music. Black said the procedure lasts a minimum of about 10 minutes but some stay for 45 minutes.

"I was a lot better than I thought it would be. It relieves stress. I usually feel good throughout the whole day," said HCC student Christopher Hughes, who has been receiving the procedure for more than a year.

He said he signed on in part because he had heard about the benefits of acupuncture and added, "When you see free on the sign, you usually take that opportunity."

Jillian Ball, who works in HCC's information technology department and had her first treatment a couple of weeks ago, said acquaintances told her that it might work for her rheumatoid arthritis.

"When I came in, my back was hurting really bad and my hands were hurting bad," she said. "About halfway through I noticed that my back felt a lot better. There's no noticeable pain. And my hands, there is a slight pain, but not as much as it was. I'm actually surprised about that. It was great."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts