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Ear Candling: the Whole Ball of Wax

Kathleen Doherty

 October 23, 2007

 

 

 

Purpose

 

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            Ear candling, also known as thermal auricular therapy or Hopi Ear Candling, is an alternative health treatment for the removal of cerumen (earwax).  The secretion and presence of cerumen in the external auditory canal is medically known to be the body’s natural defense against infection and perforation.  However, if excess earwax becomes impacted, it can compromise hearing3.  However, ear candle therapists claim that cerumen buildup can lead to any number of health problems, including sinus pressure, stress, a lowered immune system, blood impurities, vertigo, emotional instability, swimmer’s ear, and poor circulation.  Proponents of ear candles allege that their products can solve these maladies with this relaxing, non-invasive technique, essentially implying that the external ear canal is somehow connected to the circulatory system, sinus cavities and brain. Some ear candle vendors also advertise their products as aids in spiritual or karmic cleansing2.  Ear candles are marketed widely online, in health food stores, and at salons as an organic, inexpensive alternative to other medical procedures (syringing or the use of cerumen spoons) to remove ear wax3.  The technique of ear candling, supposedly both physically and spiritually cleansing, has become a widespread practice in the U.S. despite the utter lack of scientific support.

 

Procedure and Theory Behind Ear Candles

            Ear candles are typically nine-inch, hollow tubes made of an unbleached fabric (cotton or linen) coated in beeswax.  One end is slightly tapered and some kits include a circular disk to catch falling ash from the larger, burning end.  Typically, individual candles cost anywhere from two to ten dollars, while receiving the treatment at a salon can cost around twenty3.

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            The actual process of ear candling involves laying the patient on one side, inserting the hollow, tapered end of the candle lightly into the ear canal and lighting the opposite end.  Proponents claim this creates a negative pressure system within the candle which draws the softened ear wax from the ear canal.  Also, the burning of the cone supposedly creates a ‘chimney effect’ to evaporate toxins that reside deep within the inner ear6.

            The candle is allowed to burn down about two inches and is then extinguished.  While the tube burns, patients often sense a crackling or popping sensation inside the ear.  This is supposedly caused by the suction action created by the vacuum of the candle.  The practitioner then removes the tube and cuts open the tapered end to reveal the black, waxy deposit.  This is allegedly a mix of excess cerumen and toxins that was extracted from inside the inner ear2.

            The majority of popular literature about ear candling provides a brief history of this ‘ancient art’ and includes overly enthusiastic testimonials about its efficacy and benefits6.  Proponents of the product go to great lengths to boost their product’s image as earthy and spiritual.

 

History

Ear candle therapists often point to the treatment’s use in ancient times as proof of their efficacy.  In researching ear candling online, I encountered countless unsupported claims by ear candle vendors about their product’s roots in ancient Greece, Tibet, China and Egypt.  They were supposedly used by shaman healers and Hopi Indians in religious ceremonies, evidenced by their alleged appearance in primitive wall paintings (see picture)6.  All of these claims, obviously absurd and unfounded, are simply attempts to make ear candles appear natural or cosmic.

            In the past few decades, the popularity of alternative health treatments has greatly increased, with roughly one third of the American population subscribing to some form of complimentary medicine5.  Ear candling is no exception, and especially with the rise of the Internet, ear candle usage has sky rocketed.  Countless alternative medicine practitioners use their websites to tout ear candling as a safe, inexpensive and the most natural method of cerumen removal.  While they used to be primarily sold in health food stores, the majority of ear candling products are now marketed online; simply searching Google for “ear candling” returns upwards of two and a half million results.   The majority of the sites I encountered during my research listed no references and often made wild claims about the benefits and safety of these implements.  Even the more legitimate articles that were skeptical of or downright condemned the technique all cited the same few, limited experiments involving ear candling. I was actually shocked at the lack of scientific research surrounding such a widespread practice.  Today’s scientific community has, for the most part, let the alternative treatment of ear candling go untested and unverified.

 

The Scientific Response

            I will focus on the three studies I found that made an attempt to scientifically scrutinize the theories behind ear candles.  One article published in The Skeptical Inquirer discussed the results from two tests they conducted with the candles: one burned with its tapered end fitted into a model of the human ear (warm wax inside a test tube) and another was burned in the open air.  The article stated that the waxy deposits that collected at the bottoms of the two cones were nearly identical; the experimenters then declared that their trial effectively disproved the marketer’s claim that candling draws any wax from the ear canal1.  This model study at least used a control but was severely limited by the fact that only one test was conducted and the methods and results were not scientifically well grounded.  Despite this, I found multiple articles on medical websites that cited The Skeptical Inquirer study as reason to disregard ear candles as inefficacious.

            A slightly more legitimate trial was conducted by the Alternative Medicine Department of Creighton University.  It compared the wax obtained from a control candle (burned in the open air) to the wax from a candle used on a human subject in the manner specified by the ear candling kit.  The experimenters went to further lengths to prove that the waxy masses of the control and experimental candle were the same; the results section of the article compared the masses, colors, and textures of the two (see picture)8.  This made a much more convincing argument for discrediting ear candles than the previous study conducted by The Skeptical Inquirer.

            The study I found that had the most firm grounding in the scientific method, “Ear Candles- Efficacy and Safety,” was published in The Laryngoscope and was also presented at a medical conference.  The investigators (two MDs and a PhD) took a three-pronged approach to researching ear candles; first, a tympanometric analysis of twenty ear candle models proved the physically impossibility of creating a negative pressure system in a nine-inch hollow tube.  It also reported that the pressure required to physically suck out a substance as viscous as cerumen would inevitably rupture the eardrum.  The next aspect of the study was a limited clinical trial that performed ear candling on four individuals with cerumen impaction and on four individuals with no excess ear wax. The results, supported with photos of the ear canals, reported no removal of wax.  In fact, beeswax from the tube was actually deposited in two ears and an ashy deposit from the burning fabric (analyzed using spectrophotometry) was observed to collect in all cases (see picture).  The identification of the black coloring of the wax as burnt ash disproves the idea of dark toxins being removed by a ‘chimney effect.’  The third part of the study was an epidemiological survey completed by 122 head and neck physicians (a 75% response rate) that reported a total of 21 complications involved in the use of ear candles, including burns, occlusions of the ear canal and a tympanic membrane perforation5.  While the investigators even admitted the limited scope of the experiment, its methods and presentation of results made the study by far the most reputable attempt to test the legitimacy of ear candling.  This article is the most frequently cited source in scholarly journals that expose ear candling treatment as unsafe and ineffective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


            On top of these few studies that expose ear candles as essentially dangerous wastes of money, the Food and Drug Administration has refused to approve the devices and the Center for Devices and Radiological Health has deemed them unsafe.  Also, the FDA has prohibited the importation of ear candles from several Canadian companies and seized thousands of dollars worth of ear candling equipment4.

 

Conclusion

            My research effectively debunks the theories behind ear candles.  However, I drew this conclusion primarily from the ridiculous, baseless claims made by their proponents rather than overwhelming scientific evidence against them.  The limited amount of scientific literature that does address this treatment shows that they are not only a waste of money but also potentially a health risk.  Essentially, ear candling treatments are hoaxes that have been allowed to run rampant due to unchecked Internet propaganda and a lack of truly scientific investigation on their efficacy.

            This general disinterest shown by the scientific community in the safety and usefulness of alternative health treatments is an issue that needs to be addressed.  Slight progress is being made in this field, shown in part by the creation of an Office of Alternative Medicine by the National Institutes of Health5.  Also, as is the case with the Alternative Medicine Department at Creighton University, many institutions are catching up with the popular interest in complementary health practices.  Seely’s clinical study showed that experimentation with human subjects poses risk to the patient; therefore, future studies should focus on survey and model research.  I would propose a more comprehensive, broad-based survey of clinicians to assess the prevalence of health risks posed by ear candles.  Also, I suggest running a trial of multiple brands and varieties of ear candles and including a more thorough scientific analysis of the composition of the waxy mass collected.  Investigations of this sort would provide a more firm basis for definitively exposing ear candling as an ineffective and potentially dangerous technique.

 

References

  1. DeMeo, Stephen.  “The Pseudoscience of Wax Removal.” The Skeptical Inquirer. Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: 1998.
  2. Hancher, Lynne.  “A Look at Hopi Ear Candles.”  < http://www.lynnehancher.co.uk/aaahop.htm >.  12 Sept. 2007.
  3. Pray, Steven W. and Joshua J. Pray.  “Earwax: Should It Be Removed?” U.S. Pharmacist. 2005; 5:21-27.
  4. Roazen, Lisa, M.D. “Why Ear Candling Is Not a Good Idea.” <http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/candling.html >.
  5. Seely, D.R., Quigley, S.M., Langman, A.W. “Ear Candles- Efficacy and Safety.” The American Larynogological, Rhinological and Otalogical Society, Inc. The Laryngoscope 106 (10):1226-9. Oct. 1996.
  6. Sort Life Out. “Natural Hopi Ear Candles.”  < www.meaningoflife.i12.com/shop-hopi.htm >. 21 Sept. 2007.
  7. Tiger Tantra ™ Healing Movement. “Hopi Ear Candling Course.” < http://www.tigertantra.com/16253.html?*session*id*key*=*session*id*val* >. 22 Sept. 2007.
  8. Tobias, N.B. et al. “A Small Study of the Properties of Ear Candles.” Creighton University Medical Center: Complementary and Alternative Medicine. < http://altmed.creighton.edu/ear/experiment.htm >. 19 Sept. 2007.

 

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