Today, looking for something to write about, I went about thinking of some of the quackery I had heard about. I wanted something risky, something funny, and something semi popular so I figured, what fits this criteria more then shoving a flaming pipe in your ear? Not to much. So hear we go, it's called Ear Candling.
So what is it?
Yet another alternative medicine, Ear Candling involves the placing of a hollow end of a candle into your ear, either vertically or horizontally, and the lighting of the other end. Why would anyone light a candle in their ear you say? Going through the easily findable websites that both sell and advocate ear candles and ear candling I found that a lot of them don't actually tell you what they are for. Some who sell them are more honest claiming only relaxational (so not a word) benefits and, though I don't see how it would be relaxing having a burning tube coming out of your ear, I commend them for showing some honesty...even though it is crap.
One one site I found the following answer in the FAQ section of the website;
"Q. What is the primary purpose of Ear Candling? Does it have a therapeutic or medical basis? A. Ear Candling is a pleasant non-invasive treatment that can help to promote an enhanced state of health. It is used primarily to relieve conditions in the head and ear area, such as sinus problem, compacted ear wax, tinnitus and headaches or simply as an enjoyable means of relieving stress. Research for our book indicates that ear candling has a beneficial effect on the subtle energy – helping to calm and revitalize the chakras. Ear Candling is used as a complementary therapy and in recent years is gradually being embraced by the National Health Service. Some medical practices are using ear candling as an alternative to syringing for the treatment of excessive earwax - this is because, in some cases, syringing can perforate the eardrum."
Man. Firstly they avoided the question of 'medical basis' completely. In fact, they spent the second half of this lengthy paragraph trying to detract from the lack of medical basis. Where a simple no would suffice they have to go and mention chackras. I shed a single, skeptical tear every time I read the word 'chakra' or 'energy' in this kind of context. I would like to see the "research" for their book that was able to show a beneficial effect on chakra.
Secondly, no. No to everything but the purely subjective calming effect. There is no suction or heat produced in the ear, one of the founding principles of ear candling. On the efficacy, pubmed has a relative abstract from a study.
"This study evaluates the efficacy and safety of this alternative method for cerumen management. Tympanometric measurements in an ear canal model demonstrated that ear candles do not produce negative pressure. A limited clinical trial (eight ears) showed no removal of cerumen from the external auditory canal. Candle wax was actually deposited in some. A survey of 122 otolaryngologists identified 21 ear injuries resulting from ear candle use. Ear candles have no benefit in the management of cerumen and may result in serious injury."
Another abstract, this one from 'Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science - ERNST E.'
"The procedure is used as a complementary therapy for a wide range of conditions. A critical assessment of the evidence shows that its mode of action is implausible and demonstrably wrong. There are no data to suggest that it is effective for any condition. Furthermore, ear candles have been associated with ear injuries. The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged."
So with evidence mentioned but unlisted by the ear candle advocates and evidence stacking against them what else can we say. Well, it probably doesn't help that even manufacturers don't believe in the candles. I found on one site that sells candles the following disclaimer,
"DISCLAIMER.......please be advised that © Alternet Detox Hopi Aromatherapy Ear Candles for sale are not intended to diagnose, cure, mitigate, prevent or treat any disease or health condition and they are not a Medical Device. Please, consult your primary health care provider if you have any questions on the use of any of our Products...."
That can't be a good sign, what else you ask? Well, the candles are actually banned in Canada, and i've been teasing Canadians for being slow. So, Whats the worst thing about Ear Candles you most definitely ask? These things can be bought in chemists. Banned in Canada, yet we happily sell them along side our medicines. Furthermore, googling (what a verb) ear candles and ear candling brings up at first a majority of sites selling and advising on use of ear candles. I had to put in 'skeptic ear candles' to get to the debunking sites, though the Skeptic Zone has a good page on ear candling.
One last thing, many of the Ear Candle sites and promoters claim reasoning for the candles to work as to their cultural underlying in many indigenous peoples and particularly the Hopi Indian tribe. Not only is this a great example of the Cultural Origins logical fallacy, where someone claims something is good because it is popular in a certain culture or group, but it seems to be entirely incorrect.
"M Harmony PhD shared her search result looking into verifiable ear candling data. She researched what constitutes a safe and healthy candle as well as the origins of ear candling and the ancient practices that have lead to ear candling. She caused controversy when she stated that the Hopi Native American tribe has been stunned by the revelation that they were supposed to have lent their name to the most famous ear candle in the world. Michelle said she had spent a lot of time with the Hopi's to find out that the Hopis have never used ear candles and have never heard of it." - http://freespace.virgin.net
So if you see these for sale in a local pharmacy, or see anyone advertising these as a medicine, be sure to ask about them and their evidence. Remind pharmacists that they have a duty of care and that people trust them to be selling evidence and science based medicine. You can contact the PureCalma website, who so generously gave me material with those FAQ questions here.