MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

In 2004, I published an article rather boldly entitled ‘Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science’. Here is its summary:

Ear candles are hollow tubes coated in wax which are inserted into patients’ ears and then lit at the far end. 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.

Sadly, since the publication of this paper, ear candles have not become less but more popular. There are about 3 000 000 websites on the subject; most are trying to sell products and make claims which are almost comically misguided; three examples have to suffice:

I said ALMOST comical because such nonsense has, of course a downside. Not only are consumers separated from their cash for no benefit whatsoever, but they are also exposed to danger; again, three examples from the medical literature might explain:

  • Otolaryngologists from London described a case of ear candling presenting as hearing loss, and they concluded that this useless therapy can actually cause damage to the ears.
  • A 50-year-old woman presented to her GP following an episode of ear candling. After 15 minutes, the person performing the candling burned herself while attempting to remove the candle and spilled candle wax into the patient’s right ear canal. On examination, a piece of candle wax was found in the patient’s ear, and she was referred to the local ear, nose, and throat department. Under general aesthetic, a large mass of solidified yellow candle wax was removed from the deep meatus of the ear. The patient had a small perforation in her right tympanic membrane. Results of a pure tone audiogram showed a mild conductive hearing loss on the right side. At a follow-up appointment 1 month later, the perforation was still there, and the patient’s hearing had not improved.
  • case report of a 4-year-old girl from New Zealand was published. The patient was diagnosed to suffer from otitis media. During the course of the ear examination white deposits were noticed on her eardrum; this was confirmed as being caused by ear candling.

I should stress that we do not know how often such events happen; there is no monitoring system, and one might expect that the vast majority of cases do not get published. Most consumers who experience such problems, I would guess, are far to embarrassed to admit that they have been taken in by this sort of quackery.

It was true 10 yeas ago and it is true today: ear candles are a triumph of ignorance over science. But also they are a victory of gullibility over common sense and the unethical exploitation of naive hope by greedy frauds.

7 Responses to Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science.

  • Every time ear candles come up I cannot but muse at the following fond memory:
    A summer in the beginning of the eighties I and my med-school mates spent a month in Liverpool. (Don’t ask me what I was doing there, it has to do with death and formaldehyde 😀 ) We lived at a large university campus.
    One weekend there was some kind of military parade in town and a brass band, which i seem to recall was RAF, was interned on the campus.
    These were young and jovial chaps and it got rather rowdy at the campus pub as the night wore on.
    The culmination came when some of the band members pulled down their pants, lit rolled up newspapers, stuck them between the buttocks and pranced about the pub. They were of course promptly ejected as they were not doing any good and could easily be a danger to themselves and others and even set the place on fire. The same applies to ear candles.

    • I am sure you confuse this event; it was not rowdiness at all, it was the RAF band – and RAF stands for ‘Rectum Arrests Fire’

      • Thank goodness it wasn’t the band of students who categorically proved to me that RAF can also stand for ‘Rectum Accelerated Fire’ (using a cigarette lighter combined with highly combustible digestive gasses).

        Well, it was much safer than ear candling: it ruined only pairs of trousers, not ears.

  • Not to mention that here in North America, a major supplier of these candles invokes the Hopi Indians (Native Americans) in their marketing, claiming these products were discovered by the Hopi and have been used for thousands of years (or whatever, argument from antiquity?). This despite repeated requests from the actual Hopis to stop using their name and statements that they have never used and do not endorse these candles.

    I don’t know why they haven’t initiated legal action, as this seems to be a blatent and vile misuse of the Hopi name.

    I also seem to remember seeing some claims that there were hieroglyphics or ancient cave paintings showing ear candling being performed.

  • I also seem to remember seeing some claims that there were hieroglyphics or ancient cave paintings showing ear candling being performed.

    There are a lot of websites with claims that there are ancient cave paintings showing “Hopi” ear candles, but the only actual image I’ve been able to find is the one discussed here.

  • A letter from a representative of the Hopi Indians can be found, of all places, on an ardent ear-candle peddlers web site here.
    You’ll have to scroll down somewhat and click on the title “The Authenticity of the Hopi Candle”

    Thank you for your letter dated March 2, 2004, in follow-up to your September 19, 2003, requesting clarification of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office’s response.
    The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office is not aware of Hopi people ever practicing “Ear Candeling.” Biosun and Revital Ltd. are misrepresenting the name “Hopi” with their products. This therapy should not be called “Hopi Ear Candeling.” The history of Ear Candeling should not refer to being used by the Hopi Tribe. Use of this false information with reference to Hopi should be stopped.
    We appreciate your efforts to stop this false representation the United Kingdom, and we will inquire as to whether Martin Gashweseoma gave permission for the use of his image for the promotion of ear candles. Thank you for your interest in resolving this situation.
    If you have any questions or need additional information, please contact Lee Wayne Lomayestewa at the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. Thank you again for your consideration.

    Respectfully,

    Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, Director
    Hopi Cultural Preservation Office

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