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Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007

Lend an ear to an ancient practice


Staff writer

The tools and rules of hygiene are generally cut and dry: Brush your teeth at least twice a day, floss once, remember to bathe, and clip your nails to meet your own taste. But what about cleaning your ears? For some people, once every couple of weeks is enough, but others like to do it every day.

Ear candle
A worker at a massage salon in Tokyo holds a burning ear candle to a client's head (above). Below, lavender, lotus and rosemary ear candles. TORU ISHII PHOTOS
Ear candles

In North America, many use a Q-tip (known as "cotton buds" in Europe, Australia and New Zealand), a thin plastic straw with a cotton swab on either end.

In line with its reputation for embracing the modern, ear-cleaning services in Japan have gone high-tech, with salons inserting miniature video cameras into customers' ear canals in search of chunks that are then removed with various contraptions. In shops, all manner of elegant or cute ear-cleaning tools, including some that hang from cellphones or key chains, can be found.

But many people in East Asian countries continue to resort to older methods. Over the centuries they have used a variety of bamboo or stainless steel tools -- ranging from tiny ladles to wire loops -- to scoop out the contents of their ears. In China, India and Vietnam, ear cleaners continue to offer their services on sidewalks and at temples in much the same way as their ancestors did.

An alternative to that rather public remedy is called ear candling, which is used to both clean ears and clear minds. One end of an ear candle is placed into the ear and the other end is lit. As the candle heats up, the warmth supposedly loosens earwax and flakes of dead skin in the ear canal, then it creates a vacuum that sucks everything up to the base of the candle. Also known as coning, it has been performed for about 2,500 years in such widely varying cultures as those of the Chinese, Tibetans, Egyptians, Mayan, Aztec and American Indians.

Modern ear candles are made from unbleached cotton, linen or hemp dipped in a mixture of paraffin, soy wax or beeswax and herbs such as rosemary, sage, jojoba, chamomile or lavender and then rolled into cones.

Not long ago, I found a a massage salon in Ebisu, Tokyo, that offers ear candling by a crew of pretty Chinese girls wearing skimpy, silky traditional dresses for 3,500 yen a session.

"It's becoming fashionable in Beijing and Shanghai, where it started to appear in massage shops about two to three years ago," said Wang Xiaoyang, 23, a staff member at Asahi Relaxation. "A friend introduced me to it about six months ago. I started offering it here in the summer and since then I've noticed such places around Tokyo's Yamanote Line. It came to Japan through the Chinese."

Wang said a few people drop into her shop every day after seeing the sign outside -- curious about something they've never tried before.

Conventional doctors advise people who want their ears cleaned to visit a physician, who will use an operating microscope and a wide array of suction devices and instruments -- similar to those you would see lying around a dentist's office -- to remove blockages.

"For most people, ear wax moves along the ear canal and eventually makes its way to the outside, taking with it any accumulated dirt or matter. Cleaning need only be done periodically to remove what comes to the outside," Dr. Richard T. Miyamoto, president of the American Academy of Otolaryngology, told The Japan Times.

"A 1996 survey of 144 ear, nose, and throat physicians, found that 14 had seen patients who had been harmed by ear candling," he said, "including at least 13 cases of external burns, seven cases of ear canal obstruction with candle wax, and one perforated."

I actually tried the procedure several years ago after a friend came back from a trip to China raving about how these hollow ear candles could remove years of gunk that had built up.

Stick one in your ear and light it, he said, and you'll get a clearer sense of hearing than you can ever recall.

"Cool! Fire away!" I said, intrigued. My friend placed a piece of plastic paper, with a circle cut out for my ear, over my head and face to protect against dripping wax -- which he assured me was very unlikely to happen.

Audible adventure

A few minutes after the 25-cm-long candle, which looked like a rolled up sheet of yellowish, honeycombed beeswax, was lit, I could hear faint hissing sounds that seemed to echo straight down into my ear canal.

The warmth was soothing, and as the candle burned lower, I felt a strange tightening sensation just around the opening of my ear canal, as if little loose bits of stuff were being drawn together into a tight ball and sucked out.

After about 15 minutes, when the candle had burned to a few centimeters, my friend proudly produced what looked like half of a dark orange-colored crayon.

My hearing seemed to be super clear for the next few days, and I could detect high-pitch frequencies I'd never heard before.

Crumby results

Despite Miyamoto's warning, I tried the procedure again at Asahi Relaxation with Wang. I fully expected that after four years of not having it done, that orange crayon-like thing would emerge from my ears again. However, I was disappointed to see only a small pile of whitish-yellow crumbs.

"If you're healthy it's very dry and not much wax comes out," said Wang. "If your body condition is poor, what comes out is wetter and sticks together more."

While singing the praises of ear candling, Andrew Sceats, author of a book called "Ear Candling and Other Treatments for Ear, Nose and Throat Problems," also admits its limitations.

"Ear candling can help sufferers of stress, and all sorts of ear, nose and throat problems," he wrote by e-mail, "including ear infections, snoring, balance problems, sinusitis, rhinitis, sleeplessness, ear problems caused by air flight or scuba diving, and headaches, and migraines."

"The candles warm the ears and surrounding structures and change the pressure inside the ear. The aim is for the sinuses and nasal area to drain, or for the muscles lining the Eustachian Tube in the middle ear to work better, thereby expelling infection," he said. "Hopefully, viral or bacterial infections, which cause balance problems in the inner ear, will be dealt with."

And what about that wide array of stuff that seems to be pulled out of your head in the process?

"I have had a laboratory test done that confirms nothing from the ear is sucked up into the candle," said Sceats. "Your orange crayon was in fact beeswax, and the whitish yellow powder was unburned herbal ingredients from the candles."

Though my hearing seemed clearer the first time I tried it, after the second experience with Wang and listening to what Sceats had to say, I am skeptical of the candles' ability to remove wax. But because of the soothing warmth and calming aromatherapy of the burning candles, I would certainly try them again if only as a relaxation alternative -- at a similar price -- to a massage or a good soak at a hot spring.

Wacky wax facts

1. Your ears secrete more wax when you're afraid.

2. People of African and European descent tend to have wetter earwax than those of other cultures, according to a 2002 study by Nagasaki University researchers.

3. Japanese women with wet earwax are supposedly more susceptible to breast cancer than those with dry wax, Sciencemax magazine reported in 2003.

4. Excess earwax can irritate the nerves in your ear canal and make your throat tickle, giving you a sensation that your throat is located in your ear canal.

5. A whale's age can be determined after it dies by counting up the layers of earwax inside its head.



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