Americans have spent decades looking for quick ways to lose weight — often without worrying too much about safety. Approaches like the cabbage soup diet, the air diet and the tapeworm diet (all of which are exactly what they sound like) are practically designed to make people sick.
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About 10 years ago, a new weight-loss procedure appeared on the horizon: ear stapling. Fortunately, its glory days are behind it now, but some people still submit to this unproven, unsafe and largely unregulated practice, all in an attempt to slim down.
We talked to obesity medicine specialist Shweta Diwakar, MD about this bizarre fad and the dangers it poses.
What is ear stapling?
Ear stapling is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the practice of inserting a surgical staple into the cartilage of your inner ear. The process is (very) loosely derived from acupuncture, specifically auricular acupuncture.
You may already be familiar with reflexology, a massage therapy technique built on the philosophy that different parts of the foot correspond to different parts of your body. Auricular acupuncture operates from the same basic premise: Your ear is, essentially, a mini-you, with the cartilage slightly above the tragus representing your appetite.
In acupuncture, small needles are inserted into different parts of the body for 10 to 15 minutes. Ear stapling trades the acupuncture needle for a small, thin surgical staple, which — after being placed — gets left in the ear for anywhere from a few weeks to several months.
In most cases, practitioners charge by the staple and — as you might expect — they usually recommend getting both ears done. Supposedly, the effects of the staple “wear off” after a while, so the procedure has to be repeated over and over again.
Theoretically, the surgical staple continually stimulates your abdominal organs, thereby suppressing your appetite. Because you’re less hungry, you’ll eat less. And then, voila! Weight loss. Simple, right?
It almost sounds too good to be true.
And it is.
Are there any real benefits?
If you Google “ear stapling,” you’ll see testimonials from people claiming it helped them lose weight. You’ll also see some devotees assert that it eliminates migraines, nicotine cravings and insomnia.
What you won’t see is any scientific proof to back those claims up or doctors extolling the practice’s health benefits. There’s some evidence supporting the use of auricular acupuncture for weight loss, but — while some acupuncturists offer the service — ear stapling isn’t the same thing as auricular acupuncture.
The lack of scientific evidence supporting ear stapling for weight loss is one of the reasons most states don’t regulate it — there’d need to be some evidence that the practice is legitimate, and there isn’t any. There’s also some debate over whether this procedure is cosmetic or medical in nature, as it doesn’t enhance one’s appearance or confer any health benefits.
The lack of regulation effectively means that, in most states, anybody can staple your ear. Dr. Diwakar says that’s bad news because “It can be dangerous if done without maintaining proper safety precautions or if done by an untrained practitioner.”
Potential risks/side effects
Stapling your ears may sound like a joke, but the danger is real — much more real than the treatment itself.
Surgeons typically employ staples when wounds are large or complex, and — unless they’re using the staples internally — remove them within two weeks. In the case of ear stapling, you’re creating a wound, not closing it, and you’re leaving the staples in for weeks, sometimes, months at a time.
Not only does the procedure misuse a surgical tool, but you’re also the person in charge of wound care for however long the staples are left in your ears. You’re effectively leaving a foreign object in your body without medical professionals’ supervision. That’s a recipe for infection and possible deformity. Healthcare providers are quick to note that any infection could lead to serious side effects, and could even be fatal in some cases.
In other words, you won’t lose weight, but you could lose your ear. If you develop an antibiotic-resistant infection like MRSA, you could even lose your life.
Dr. Diwakar’s advice is simple: “Don’t do it.”
What to do instead
If you stumbled upon this article because conventional approaches to weight loss, like diet and exercise, haven’t been successful, you may be a bit discouraged.
“Weight loss is definitely a frustrating journey,” Dr. Diwakar notes, “but my advice is please don’t give up. Obesity is a chronic condition. It’s a multifactorial condition. But it’s also a treatable condition. There are several proven and safe weight-loss strategies, and the science behind weight loss is evolving. There are many new medications available, and still more in the pipeline.”
Putting surgical staples in your ears isn’t a safe option, but surgery can be.
“Different bariatric surgeries have been shown to be very effective and can produce sustainable weight loss,” Dr. Diwakar states. She explains that the benefits of bariatric surgery go beyond weight loss. Her patients have seen long-term Type 2 diabetes remission, as well as improvement in sleep apnea and cardiovascular health.
If you’re looking for help losing weight, Dr. Diwakar suggests speaking with your primary care physician or seeing an obesity medicine specialist. They’ll help you find a weight loss strategy that’s right for you, and doesn’t involve unnecessary injury.