Ear Candling: Is It Just a Ball of Wax?
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Ear Candling: Is It Just a Ball of Wax?

Arlene is a 75-year-old retired nutritionist living in Florida. After developing tinnitus (ringing in the ears) she decided to try ear candling with a local practitioner.

“I heard that candling could help clean out earwax, bacteria, and debris that could be contributing to the problem, so I thought I’d give it a try,” she said.

The practitioner had Arlene lie on her side and then put a collecting plate above her ear, through which a candle was inserted into her ear canal. The practitioner then lit the wick of the candle. After candling each ear, the practitioner gently cleaned them out with a cotton swab dipped in oil. Although the treatment did not cure her tinnitus, Arlene reports that it helped to unplug her ears.

“I had to get used to how loud everything sounded after the candling!” she said. Impressed with the treatment, she convinced her husband to try it as well.

The Purported Benefits of Candling

The origins of candling are uncertain, but this ancient practice possibly originated in the Orient, Egypt, or the pre-Columbian Americas. Practitioners of candling (also called coning) use special ear candles made of linen or cotton soaked in wax or paraffin. The candles are hollow and about 10 inches long. Practitioners say that when a candle is placed in the ear and lit, a low-level vacuum is created, which sucks wax and other debris out of the ear canal.

Many claims are made about the effects of candling. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. In addition, there is not even plausible reasoning for how candling might work.

For example, proponents say that candling can cure the following conditions:

But each of these conditions occurs on the inner side of the eardrum—out of reach of candles. For other conditions closer to the site of candling—swimmer’s ear or temporomandibular disorder (TMD)—there is no evidence that it is helpful.

Many other health benefits associated with candling are vague or scientifically meaningless. Some examples are "strengthen the brain," "purify the mind," "stabilize emotions," "clear the eyes," "purify the blood," and "release blocked energy."

It does seem reasonable that candling may help remove earwax and clear up problems related to earwax build-up. However, according to one group of researchers, the negative pressure needed to pull sticky wax from the ear canal would have to be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum during the process. After actually measuring the pressure during candling, the researchers found that, in fact, no negative pressure was created. In any case, there are much safer and easier ways to remove wax.

Safety Concerns

Many doctors have concerns about the safety of ear candling. Fourteen out of 144 ear, nose, and throat specialists that took part in a (1996) survey had seen patients who were harmed by ear candling. Of these patients, 13 had external burns, seven had ear canal obstruction from candle wax, and one had a perforated eardrum.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the ear candle an unregulated medical device and has taken action to prevent the sale and distribution of ear candles in the United States. Despite these actions, ear candles are still widely available at health food stores and on the Internet.

Many practitioners of ear candling recommend that people see only those who have been properly trained to use the procedure. They discourage do-it-yourself candling and warn that it can lead to mishaps. However, many doctors believe that ear candling is ineffective and unsafe, no matter who does it.

Cleaning the Ears

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves to coat the skin of the ear canal where it acts as a temporary water repellent. The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears. They recommend the following tips for proper ear care:

  • Wash the external ear with a cloth over your finger, but do not insert anything into your ear canal.
  • In cases of earwax blockage, try home treatments to soften wax, such as:
    • A few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, or glycerin
    • Commercial drops
  • If home treatments don’t work or earwax is compacted, see a doctor or other professional who uses instruments that are considered safe and effective.
  • If you have persistent pain or other problems with your ears, see your doctor.

The controversy about ear candling remains. Proponents swear that it works—impressively enough so that many of them undergo the procedure on a regular basis. However when it comes to ear candling, many doctors agree with the old admonition, “Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.”

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
http://www.entnet.org

Ear, Nose, and Throat Index
National Institutes of Health
http://health.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Society of Otolaryngology
http://www.csohns.com

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

References:

American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery website. Available at: http://www.entnet.org.

Quackwatch website. Available at: http://www.quackwatch.com/.

Seely DR, Quigley SM, Langman AW. Ear candles: efficacy and safety. Laryngoscope. 1996;106:1226-1229.

United States Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/.



Last reviewed May 2008 by Richard Glickman-Simon, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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