Suction cups, ear candling and other bunkum

I'm a sceptic. And proud. I mean 'sceptic' in the real sense, not the way it has been used as a euphemism in the climate change debate for a head-in-the-sand denialist. (As it happens, I suspect a real sceptic would rationally assess the evidence and conclude there is reason to take action to reduce carbon emissions, if only as a precaution against calamity.)

My scepticism is all about seeking out evidence to assess a given proposition, and stripping out emotion and subjectivity in working out what is genuine, and what is merely wishful thinking.

For that reason, I'm doubtful about the merits of medical treatment outside the mainstream. My reasoning is best encapsulated by the quite brilliant Tim Minchin and his beat poem, Storm:

“By definition”, I begin
“Alternative Medicine”, I continue
“Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call “alternative medicine”
That’s been proved to work?

For me that knocks out homeopathy, pranic healing and a variety of other treatments so kooky and devoid of evidence they seem only useful as an announcement to the world of the person's gullibility.

But my scepticism of alternative medicine does come with a small caveat. I'm willing to try almost anything, in order to test it for myself and personally acquaint myself with its proponents' bunkum. So long as the risk of harm is minimal, the cost reasonable, and the risk of humiliation no greater than I might experience on a Japanese game show.

My theory on these things is that there's often a significant placebo effect at work. If your ailment is minor and you're willing to suspend disbelief, some of the fringe treatments can actually have a positive effect. Not because the treatment itself has any desirable physical properties, but because the sensation of being pampered, cared for and briefly removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life can have a therapeutic benefit.

The zen music, burnt incense and darkened rooms that seem to accompany many alternative therapies are the true source of the feeling of wellness that often goes with treatment. The benefit is incidental to the alternative therapy rather than a direct result of it, but it is there all the same.

All of which explains why few weeks back I found myself, while on a trip to Kuala Lumpur, signing up for a double hit of a Chinese cup massage and an ear candling. Not together, mind you - best to focus on one at a time. In the interests of medical science, you see.

I had my doubts about the effectiveness of either of them, but with little downside I was willing to give it a go. (The perception of 'little downside' is actually off the mark. I hadn't researched the treatments much beforehand, but there is some evidence that both carry risks - of burns in the case of the cupping and perforated eardrum in the case of the candling.)

So just what are the supposed benefits of the cup massage. As the American Cancer Society explains:

Cupping is a practice of Chinese medicine recommended mainly for treating bronchial congestion, arthritis, and pain. It is also promoted to ease depression and reduce swelling.

Cupping is supposed to realign and balance the flow of one's vital energy or life force called qi or ch'i, pronounced "kee" or "chee." In the presence of illness or injury, proponents say, the qi is disturbed and there may be too much or too little at certain points in the body. The practitioner diagnoses any imbalances in the qi and attempts to restore them. Although not widely used as an alternative method of treatment for cancer, some practitioners may use it to rebalance energy in the body that has been blocked by tumors.

Righteo. Can't say I'm afflicted with any of the ailments identified for treatment, but restoring imbalances in energy distribution must surely have some positive effects.

I entered the massage room and soon I am lying face down on a bench behind curtains, feeling mellow and at peace with myself and the world. That continued right up to the point when the first cup was applied, the suction pump set to work, and the flesh of my shoulder involuntarily pulled some distance from my skeleton. Then the second cup was applied, again tugging at my back against its will, and the process continued until a dozen or so cups were in place.

What I hadn't realised before starting was just how much flesh is pulled into the cup. I imagined the cups to be applied with the sort of strength you can experience when you place a cup at your mouth, sucking in some of the air to hold it in place. There's some suction, but not the sort that causes any great pain to your mouth. The quantity of suction during the massage is several multiples of that.

So once the cups were in place, they stayed there while the masseuse left me to lie still, stare at the ground, and ponder what the hell was happening to my back. While the sensation was only mildly painful, it was certainly not pleasant, and most definitely not the sort of thing likely to prompt relaxation, no matter how much incense and Enya is in the vicinity.

Eventually the masseuse returned, ready to relieve me of the cups. Off they came, one by one, each time a part of my back silently cursing me for subjecting them to such cruel and unusual punishment. After they were all removed, my back felt oddly tender, slightly itchy and with considerable stretches of raised flesh chaffing against my shirt. This was not pleasant during the deed, and certainly not present afterwards.

That night, I returned to my hotel room in mild discomfort. Taking my shirt off and examining myself in the mirror revealed why.

Ugly, red, raised welts stared back at me, atop many of them small bubbles of fluid that I associated with severe sunburn, suggesting some burning had occurred. These welts and bruises took more than a week to subside, through there does not appear to be any long-term damage.

It is difficult to know just how the sensation of redistributed energy ought to feel, given I'm not a believer in the concept in the first place. So I can't say for certain that the massage has failed to meet that goal. But I can say with certainty is that it has brought me little pleasure or relaxations, either amid the massage or after it.

With the bruises on my back still lingering, two days later I tried out ear candling, a therapy that was of particular interest to me because of frequent build up of wax inside my ear canal. Could this be my cure, I wondered, given nothing else seemed to fix the problem?

According to WebMD, this could be the therapy for me:
Ear candling is an ancient practice that supposedly removes wax from the ears, thereby improving physical and spiritual well-being.

I entered the massage room, lying down on my back and with my head tilted to the side. The masseuse took out the candle and rested the bottom of the candle on top of my ear. After wrapping a small cloth around the lower part of the candle, she lit the top. Just what happened from here is a little hard to tell - as the recipient of the ear candling, it's difficult to observe what is going on.

In my candled ear, I heard a soft burning sound - the sound you hear when listening to a matchstick burning. The sound would gradually become louder as the candle burned closer and closer to my ear, but at no point made me feel like I was in danger.

After a quarter hour or so, amid a flourish of her wrist, the masseuse theatrically blew out of the candle. She then unravelled the lower part of the candle and revealed a small pile of powder. The wax from my ears, the masseuse triumphantly said. I was in no position to argue, although previous tests have shown that the powder displayed after ear candling is nothing more than the wax and soot from the candle itself.

I flipped my head to the other side and my other ear was candled, another pile of powder purposefully presented as evidence of my poor aural hygiene.

Sad to say, in the hours that followed my ears felt much as they had before, with a gently annoying waxiness that I have become used to. The candling brought little pleasure as it was taking place, although I do admit the head massage that I received at the same time was rather nice. Perhaps I should stick to that next time.

After all that, my back was sporting bruises and my ears may have had more wax than they did before and I more stressed than I did beforehand. But I was wiser for the encounter - I can now state with the confidence that comes from personal experience that suction cups and ear candling are nothing more than lures for the gullible.


midnightgothic said…
I've been told to try ear candling for my ear problems but now after reading this I don't think I will bother. I already had my doubts it would be a waste of time, thanks for reaffirming it! The cupping is not really my thing either. And I am usually a believer in alternative medicine. I think these methods just seem too far-fetched for my liking.
Victoria said…
You can burn your ear candle over anything other an ear and get the same 'wax' results.
It's cool though to see if the treatment brought any enjoyment (apparently not!)...I trust the bruises are all gone.
Ari Sharp said…
Sasha - probably best to stay away from ear candling to fix the problem. Potentially worthwhile to satisfy your curiosity, but not to solve the problem. Not sure what does work to fix waxy ears, though.

Victoria - thanks for the link. Does someone undermine the claims of the candlers! Bruises are all clear now. Thankfully.
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