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Fire in the hole! The truth about ear candling

By Linda Dahlstrom, health editor

ear candling
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What it is:  Ear candling (also called ear coning). Spa sessions are generally between 30 and 60 minutes and cost between $40 and $80.

What it claims to do: Advocates of ear candling say it's a natural way to remove excess wax and debris from inside the ear. A long, hollow, tapered "candle," usually a cone made of muslin and coated with wax, is inserted into the ear and lit. Proponents say the smoke moves down the cone, into the ear and back out, creating a vacuum effect that draws out debris and wax.

My experience:  I wouldn't have thought that spending an hour with fire coming out of my ears would be relaxing.  But the cushy massage table, heated pad cradling my neck, luxurious shoulder massage and soothing sounds of Enya quickly put aside my anxiety.

I'd read about ear candling online and seen horror stories about candle wax dripping back down into the ear itself, causing excruciating pain and serious injury. But I'd also read its praises and the accounts of people who swore by the procedure, saying it helped relieve fluid buildup and even tinnitus.

I'd had a mild cold a while back that was still causing my ears to pop.  Maybe candling would make it go away?

Originally, I'd bought a do-it-yourself ear candling kit online, but quickly realized the logistics wouldn't allow me to candle my own ears. And leery from the warnings about candling (not to mention being put off by the kit's fire retardant cloth), I decided I didn't want to take any chances with those near and dear to me.

Instead, I booked an appointment at a cozy spa outside Seattle, where the aesthetician showed me the candles and told me what to expect - to feel a gentle warmth in my ears and to hear a light crackling from the flames. Immediately, I regretted my hairspray, but she reassured me that the candles are only allowed to burn down to a certain point safely away from me.

Once I was tucked into the massage table, she did a heavenly neck and shoulder rub. I was so relaxed that my worry melted away, so to speak. She put the candles in my ears, lit them and soon I felt the warmth she'd told me about. The crackling sounded louder than I'd imagined, but I focused on the soft music and soothing ambiance created by the candlelight – coming from my ears.

It took about 15 or 20 minutes for the first candle to burn down; then she put drops of oil in my ear, tilted my head and repeated the procedure on the other side.  I'd been told that after everything was over, I could look inside the candle and see what my ear had coughed up. I was oddly eager – and a little afraid. Who knew what was going on down there? Once, when I was a kid, my hearing dwindled in one ear, prompting a doctor to do a thorough cleaning and blast out a long-lost peppercorn I'd apparently put down my canal as a toddler. And that was years ago. Who knew what had happened during those drunken nights in college?

Nonetheless, when the second candle burned down, I was eager to see.  I sat up and took my first look at … a tiny trail of powder. Hmm.

The aesthetician told me she can't offer a medical diagnosis but that some say the powder is fungus from inside the ear. I felt a little embarrassed, like somehow it indicated a shameless lack of hygiene.

What the expert says:  I got off lucky, says Dr. David Leopold, director of integrative medical education at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, Calif.

"(At Scripps) we do integrative medicine. We're always dealing with the 'alternative' world. … If it works and it's safe we want if for our patients. But pretty definitely this is one you shouldn't try," he said. "At the very best it's not going to work. At the worst it's going to be dangerous. .. It's not effective and people should stay away."

As for the powder trail that was in my candle? Leopold says it was likely residue from the smoke or candle wax. Studies have tested the contents of candles after the procedure and found that it's definitely not anything from the ear itself.  "In several studies they found the wax from the candle was deposited back into the ear," he says.

Even if the smoke did create some kind of a vacuum powerful enough to pull wax from the ear, you wouldn't want it to, says Leopold.

"Wax is extremely protective for the ear. It's anti-bacterial, anti-fungal. The ear has its own cleaning mechanism. It's a little conveyer belt that shunts everything to the outside," he said. "The body is an amazing detoxifier. If you just let it do what it's going to do, it'll do a great job."

Bottom line:  My spa experience felt relaxing, but the ear candling didn't seem to make any kind of difference. Three days later, the popping in my ears is the same as before the procedure. And, after learning more about the dangers of candling, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone. Next time I'm in the mood for the soothing sounds of Enya, I'll book a massage.