Ear candling has come to Siem Reap, which will no doubt delight a few people. But anyone thinking of employing this supposed alternative therapy should probably think twice before lighting up a candle.
In Siem Reap, ear candling can now be experienced at the Angkor Night Market, or candles can be purchased directly from the Bodhi Leaf, a small Buddhist shop on Route 6.
But ear candles have been denounced by the medical establishment as not just as simply ineffective, but also dangerous.
Ear candles are roughly 30cm-long cloth and wax tubes that are tapered at one end. Users insert the tapered end into their ear, lie down on one side, and then spark up the other end. The tube takes between 10 and 20 minutes to burn down which, it is alleged, creates a vacuum that sucks wax and other impurities out of the ear canal.
On completion, a stick is pushed through the candle to show all of the impure debris drawn out.
To give them the necessary ethnic gloss, akin to so-called ‘traditional Chinese medicine,’ ear candles are frequently touted as coming from the American Hopi Indian tribe, a claim rejected by the tribe’s Cultural Preservation Office.
One manufacturer claims that their St John’s Wort-impregnated ear candles also come from the tribe, which is interesting as a brief check showed that St John’s Wort is not native to the Americas but was introduced in the late 1800s.
Numerous therapeutic effects are claimed for the process, including the relief of sinus pressure, improved hearing, relief of earache and tinnitus, fortification of the central nervous system, purification of the blood, and so on.
But doctors state that in order for the ear wax to be drawn out the ear canal, the suction generated would have to be so great that it would in fact rupture the eardrum. Though users needn’t worry about that as it has been demonstrated that the ear candles create no vacuum to speak of.
Moreover, absolutely no genuine therapeutic effects have been demonstrated, which makes sense as the ear canal is not linked to the sinuses, the brain, the blood stream or other parts of the body on which the candles are alleged to have an effect.
What prospective users do need to be aware of is the risk of burns and wax from the candle itself dripping down into the ear canal causing blockages, injury or even perforating the eardrum.
A study conducted in 1996 found no benefit from the procedure and established that debris from the candle actually fell into the ear canal. This is bad enough at home, but with the limited medical facilities available in Cambodia, a decision to undergo the procedure should not be taken lightly, if at all.
Ear candles are banned in Canada, and the American Food and Drug Administration strongly warns against their use, because of the injuries they can cause. Sellers in the US are forbidden from claiming any therapeutic effects, and are only allowed to sell the candles as “entertainment.”
Jake Chapman is the British owner of the Bodhi Leaf, which sells ear candles for home-use for $6 each. He is a Buddhist monk of 15 years and is certainly no snake oil salesman. Having used the candles for the last ten years, he genuinely believes they have some therapeutic effect.
“It’s really lovely” he says. Holding back from making any substantive therapeutic claims, he feels that the candle’s role was perhaps more soothing than actively curative.
“It’s probably a ceremonial thing really”, he says. “And just being quiet and still for a while can really help your general well-being.”
He says he hasn’t experienced any negative effects from the candles, but does take precautions, such as pushing the candle through a hole in a paper plate in order to prevent burns. But this would not prevent debris from falling into the ears.
A test of one of the candles purchased at the Bodhi Leaf produced unsurprising results. Once the candle had burned down (in a bowl and not in my ear) I opened it up to reveal, quelle surprise, a lot of waxy looking debris, not from anyone’s ear, but from the candle itself.