Ear candling? – don’t be an ass!

If you’ve ever publicly aired a contrary opinion on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, its products, practices and practitioners, and (cough) philosophy, then, not uncoupled from the probability of encountering adherence to fallacious logic and the provoking of irrational wrath, you may well have met with the defensive protestation that you are being offensive.

Like that is somehow relevant. But, this entrenching attitude goes, rather than criticise or question, you should perhaps instead address your failure/inability to comprehend, take a look at yourself and your negative, close-minded, nihilistic outlook, and consider the feelings of those who subscribe to something they genuinely believe ‘works for me.’ Because, lest it be overlooked, those who practice/sell/supply/market CAM’s wares and services all have nothing but the best interests of their customers/consumers/clients (I purposely do not use the word ‘patients’) at heart, and are all very nice, well-meaning people. So lighten up and live and let live.

Well, quite. To some extent, I might grudgingly agree. You see, I can understand the appeal to those who become somehow sold on the whole ‘natural is best’ mantra of one or two of its ‘techniques’. You know, those that involve the laying on of kind hands; always very relaxing and calming and pleasurable (though spare me the whale song); or even the ‘hands off’ variety – the anticipation of touch, which maybe further convinces of the purported shamanic transfer of some miraculous healing ‘energy’, accompanied by all that garnishing pseudoscientific language, employed to scientifically authenticate the scientifically nonsense. I imagine that this is akin to the sensation that I’ve certainly experienced on rare occasion. Where someone you perhaps don’t know that well can somehow, just by virtue of their manner and movement, have an inexplicable and unexpected pleasurable affect on you. Something, I don’t know… edgeless.

I vaguely recollect this infrequent sensation as a schoolchild in the presence of one or other teacher; or when being taught/instructed/lectured during my adult working/educational life, though cannot always recall specifically who/where/when. Which might suggest some kind of power relationship affect. But perhaps the most recent reminder was ‘transmitted’ during the occasional lunch break in my former job. I would go down to the canteen, usually late when the crowds had thinned, needing to get away from recalcitrant cells or moody colleagues, or some unsavoury machinating. Behind the sandwich counter some days would be this baseball-capped young guy who somewhat reminded me of Plug from The Beano. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but if my turn in the (by now short) queue coincided with his turn to serve, I didn’t mind that he was seemingly incapable of retaining three salad item selections in his mind simultaneously. After filling a baguette with my chosen proteinaceous ‘main course’ he would look up at me, with slack-jawed expectancy of my garnish preferences: “Lettuce, tomato, olives”, and he’d sprinkle some shredded lettuce, and look up at me again; “Tomato and olives”, and he’d deliberately apply a few slices of tomato, then look up at me again; “And olives”, and he’d spoon on some chopped olives to complete my meal. Far from becoming impatient, or irritated, I’d experience a fleeting Proustian reminder of the tranquilness I’ve so non-adeptly described above. And nothing much else would matter – for a useful brief while.

And so I wonder… when you’ve the hands of a self-proclaimed Reiki ‘Master’ (how much work and effort is required to acquire that title qualification?) or some such hovering over you, is this how it makes you feel? And, because you can’t explain it, because it is happening in the presence of this one person, you readily, happily lap up the associated balderdash about their special skill, their healing power, their ‘energy’, etc? And so, the argument inevitably goes… What’s wrong with that? Well, nothing in itself. People are free to spend their own money however they so choose on whatever they believe makes them feel good. Unless, that is, it gets accompanied by (disclaimed) claims of medical benefit/efficacy. And the charging of monies on such premises. And particularly the unethicality of the raising of false hopes.

Apparently, it doesn’t do to dismiss CAM fanatics as stupid, because, well, it’s not about knowledge; it’s about belief. And clever people believe stupid things. But at what point does one apply the marker? Can one (of a particular social demographic) just be so predisposed/conditioned to become so CAM trusting that ‘each to their own’ applies no matter what? (In which case, why are they so damn willing to spread the converting word?) Perhaps it’s the whole ‘ancientness’ selling thing, which is so compelling that one might even become sold on the notion of having someone light a candle in one’s ear.

I occasionally, when petty inquisitiveness overcomes me, have a gander at the information provided by CAM practitioners, see what it is they do, and how they present it, and the claims they make thereon. Not only is it the CAM that annoys; but the marketing – how people are subtly persuaded into parting with their money for ineffectual products/services. And I occasionally, via the contact details provided for the purpose, make a polite request for provision of, or direction to, evidence. You will be unsurprised to learn that this sting-less approach tends to go unanswered, they presumably having developed radar for detecting a guileless sceptic. And any response to ‘show me the evidence’ is telling: when I point out that client testimonials do not constitute such, the dialogue (though it may be civil) is rendered fruitless.

Why am I homing in here on ear candling? Well, as one who lives with chronic rhinosinusitis, my eye might be caught by claims that inserting a burning tubular candle in your ear is an effective treatment for (among other things) aspects of my condition. Nothing surprises me anymore. But why is it that, in almost forty years of repeat examinations, consultations, X-rays/CT scans, and the gamut of relevant treatments, from decongestants, painkillers, ear syringing, steroid nasal sprays and saltwater rinses, to Functional Endoscopic Sinus Surgery, not one among numerous GPs, and ENT consultants, registrars, nurses and surgeons has ever suggested I try (to give it its pretentious, authority-appealing, science-y seeming name) ‘Thermal Auricular Therapy.’ Ever. In a country in which an inordinate number of GPs are apparently willing to refer patients to CAM practitioners (which, I’d wager, is partly to do with a means of offloading the pesky time-consuming worried-well to someone with the room to give them what they really seek – attention). And the only mentions I can find via PubMed are wholly negative. Not only does it not work, it does not generate a negative convection current that removes melted cerumen (that’s ear wax to the layman). In fact, not only does it seem, but there are recorded instances of it being downright hazardous. It’s not the candles doing the sucking; it’s the one having them stuck in their ears.

Yet people continue to lap up this utter nonsense, to seek it out, to believe that it does something for them. And as long as there is sufficient demand in the world, you can be sure as heck there will be those more than willing to cater to their babyish needs. Which in turn means some opportunistic entrepreneurial spirit will provide the materials. For example, this company supplies ‘Hopi’ ear candles. Nevermind that they have bugger all to do with Hopi Indians, as the accompanying marketing spiel often claims (much to the chagrin of the Hopi themselves, who have objected to their name being associated with this silly practice – because they’ve never practiced it), it is handy that this appeal to ‘ancient’ authority can be combined with the modern promotional twist that theirs ‘… are the only ear candles in Europe to have a Medical Device Classification’ being ‘… certified medical products class IIa according to medical device directive 93/42/EEC.’

Now, I claim no originality in drawing attention to this particular supplier/product (see, for example, The Quackometer, or Rose Shapiro’s excellent polemic), but this appeal to the authority of EEC directive I find interesting. One can imagine, with the high numbers of (for example) homeopaths being allowed to practice in large swathes of the continent, that CAM gets an easy ride from the EU. But, is this ‘medical device‘ classification genuine, or mal-appropriation?

Well, on the website of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency there is provided a link to the ‘Council Directive 93/42/EEC of 14 June 1993 concerning medical devices’ document, wherein I note the following:


2. Invasive devices

2.1. Rule 5

All invasive devices with respect to body orifices, other than surgically invasive devices and which are not intended for connection to an active medical device:

– are in Class IIa if they are intended for short-term use, except if they are used in the oral cavity as far as the pharynx, in an ear canal up to the ear drum or in a nasal cavity, in which case they are in Class I,

(my emphasis in bold), but I find no specific mention to these ear candles.

Don’t know about you, but I find this ambiguous: specifically, is that a list of exceptions after ‘except’ (in which case they are in ‘Class I’); or, do we read it that, providing the device is not rammed against the tympanic membrane, then ‘Class IIa’ applies?

Regardless, the appeal to this directive is tenuous: because ear candles are for sticking in the ear; and because there is an EEC medical directive concerning medical devices which are inserted in the ear, it employs the simplest magician’s sleight of logic to suggest that ear candles can be authoritatively classified as ‘medical devices.’

Personally, if I had money to burn on ‘special’ treatment, I’d opt for turning left on the plane. Rather than benefitting from sticking a burning candle in your ear as a medical treatment, you’re more likely to need medical treatment because you’ve stuck a burning candle in your ear. The smallest thing you should stick in your ear is your elbow. It seems to me that those who seek this practice don’t know theirs from theirs. Thermal Auricular Therapy / (Hopi) Ear Candling has no logical, medical or scientific basis whatsoever. It is a marker of someone with big furry ones.

Ass copy

2 responses to “Ear candling? – don’t be an ass!

  1. Bravo, Lee! Applause. Reading this was a great way to usher in the New Year, which, of course, promises to be ‘same-old, same-old’ regarding stupid, intransigent beliefs and quacks duping the vulnerable.

    The mention of ear candling has always conjured up in my mind the image of Shrek assiduously extracting his own ear-wax, putting a wick in it and lighting it up for a romantic dinner with Fiona, Mrs. Shrek.


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