ABOUT EAR CANDLES
Ear candling is the practice of inserting a candle-wax-filled hallow tube into the ear canal and igniting the opposite end with flame. The most commonly sited benefits include drawing out unwanted wax and other compounds from the ear canal or connective facial sinuses.
Ear candling's origins are somewhat disputed. Many practitioners, manufacturers, or suppliers claims the practice is of Hopi Indian decent, yet the Hopi Tribal Council states it is not and has never been a Hopi practice. Ancient Tibet, China, Egypt, the pre-Columbian Americas, and even the mythical city of Atlantis are also cited as possible contributors.
The practice is also sometimes call ear coning, or thermo auricular therapy. But regardless of the name, it's usually the same procedure: while a patient is laying on their side, a 9-12 inch hallow wax-filled tube or cone is inserted into the opposite ear (often with a paper or plastic shield near the face to act as a barrier) and lit aflame.
It's most often used within the alternative medicine industry, and therefor can sometimes be found as an add-on service in massage therapy environments.
Proponents of ear candling claim the combination of heat and suction caused by negative pressure removes wax and other unwanted material from the ear canal, which appears as a dark (or powdery) residue once the tube is cut open.
EAR CANDLING RESEARCH
Ear wax is well, waxy. It's usually quite sticky. The negative pressure required to extract it from the ear canal would have to be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum in the process. The gross yellowish stuff claimed to be removed from the ear and into the hallow tube is simply wax (and likely a bit of ash) from the candle itself.
A review published in 1996 concluded: "Tympanometric measurements in an ear canal model demonstrated that ear candles do not produce negative pressure. A limited clinical trial (eight ears) showed no removal of cerumen from the external auditory canal. Candle wax was actually deposited in some. A survey of 122 otolaryngologists identified 21 ear injuries resulting from ear candle use. Ear candles have no benefit in the management of cerumen and may result in serious injury."
A another review published in 2004 stated: "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."
The Mayo Clinic states: "The theory behind ear candling, also called ear coning or thermal auricular therapy, is that the heat from the flame will create suction that draws the earwax into the hollow candle. Ear candling has also been touted as a treatment for sinus infections and as a way to improve hearing. Research shows, however, that ear candling is ineffective at removing earwax. In fact, the technique can actually push earwax deeper into the ear canal."
Additionally, the FDA has issued a warning to consumers to, "not to use ear candles because they can cause serious injuries, even when used according to the manufacturer’s directions. FDA has found no valid scientific evidence to support the safety or effectiveness of these devices for any medical claims or benefits."
The warning goes on to site risks that include, "burns to the face, ear canal, eardrum and middle ear; injury to the ear from dripping wax ; plugging of the ears by candle wax; bleeding; and perforation of the eardrum."
EAR CANDLING SUMMARY
I found no research that suggests ear candling may be an effective treatment for extracting material from the ear canal. I did find research that these candles not only cannot create the necessary suction to remove wax from the ear, but that the practice itself could very potentially result in harm to a client.
As for the potential therapeutic and stress-relieving value of apply heat to the area in and around the ear itself, there are many other applications that are much safer, such as applying a warm moist towel or heating pad.
Some practitioners also site belief-based benefits including energy clearing and alignment of chakras. Believe-based practices are outside the scope of this evidence-based review; however, due to the potential for serious injury, strong caution should be advised.