How do “ear candles” work?

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Dear Cecil: How do “ear candles” work? Recently my hearing became impaired, and I was advised that my ears were impacted with wax. A friend recommended that the wax could be removed if I stuck a candle in my ear and lighted the other end. To humor her, I accompanied her to a homeopathic-remedy shop. Ear candles were prominently displayed. An ear candle is a hollow paper cone impregnated with ordinary candle wax. The large end is about one inch in diameter. The other end is small enough to go into the ear. As I lay on my side with the candle in place, my friend lighted the other end. The candle burned slowly and smoothly, with (I was told) some wisps of smoke circulating downward to the small end. There was no discomfort or noticeable warmth. After about ten minutes she removed the candle and snuffed out the flame. Immediately my hearing in that ear was back to normal. The end of the cone had a considerable amount of earwax in it. The process was equally successful in the other ear. Saxe Dobrin, Santa Monica, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Uh-huh. Not that I’d ever doubt the Teeming Millions, but I prefer to conduct my own experiments. Ear candling is the latest New Age fad, being to the 90s what colonic irrigation was to the 80s. Colonic irrigation was never a procedure I was inclined to investigate close up. But with ear candles I figured, how bad can it be?

Having rounded up a couple of MDs and a volunteer candlee, I went to my neighborhood new-age apothecary shop to buy ear candles. I discovered to my surprise that (1) they were 11 inches long — I’d assumed they were the size of a birthday candle — and (2) they cost $3.50 each. This gets you a hollow cone made of wax-impregnated cloth with a raw-materials cost of maybe ten cents, a profit margin that makes even ballpark hot dogs look like a deal.

Figuring that the MDs’ medical education had probably been a little light in the ear-candling department, I also bought an ear-candling manual. In the “theory and research” section I read that “the low flame of the [ear candle] wick creates a slow vacuum which softens and pulls the old wax into the base of the candle.” I had no idea what a slow vacuum was, but I was prepared to believe a candle might cause earwax to wick up.

I read on. “Our theory is that [various benefits] are possible because all the passages in the head are interconnected, allowing the candles to drain the entire system osmotically through the membrane of the ear. … All nerves have a thin coating of spinal fluid which can become polluted. The fluid in your body circulates 14 times a day in order to cleanse itself. … Our cranial bones become misaligned. … [Candling] cleans the lymphs within this structure as well as the cochlear hairs themselves.” Whew, too deep for me. But the manual did have pictures, so even dopes could do it right.

The medical team consisted of Keith Block, a family practitioner with an interest in alternative medicine, and Cecil’s good friend Clark Federer. Clark was a surgeon rather than an ear-nose-throat guy, but I meant to be prepared for any eventuality. Our subject was Pat, a 30-year-old male who’d had earwax removed via conventional medical treatment some years earlier.

First we peered into Pat’s ears with an otoscope, the familiar flashlight-type examining device. The poor guy had enough wax in there to make his own candles. We put him on the table, lit the candle, and stuck it in his ear in the prescribed manner. Then we watched, struggling to suppress the thought that we should also be chanting and maybe sacrificing small animals.

When the candle had burned down to two inches we snuffed it and examined the treated ear with the otoscope. No change, except that possibly the wax was dented where the candle had been stuck in. Upon slicing open the candle stub, however, we found a considerable quantity of brown wax and whitish powder. The manual had the audacity to intimate that the powder was candida yeast extracted from the ear, conceding that possibly “1% to 10%” was from the used candle. The disappointed MDs were more inclined to say it was 100 percent, but just to be sure we burned another candle in the open air. When we sliced it open we found wax and powder identical to that in the first. Conclusion: it’s a hoax. Ain’t it always the way? Maybe we’re not doing enemas anymore, but we’re winding up with the same old stuff.

Your worst fears confirmed

Dear Cecil:

As an otolaryngologist with 15 years’ experience, I have had more than one occasion on which a victim of ear candling [March 10, April 21] has presented to my office with excruciating symptoms caused by melted wax adhering to the eardrum. This often necessitates minor surgery and puts the patient’s hearing at risk. In addition to debunking the efficacy of ear candling, you should mention the inherent danger to hearing.

— C. Christopher Smith, MD, FACS, Dover, New Hampshire

Cecil Adams

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