Does ear stapling work?

35aProponents claim that inserting a steel surgical staple into the inner cartilage of the ear can lower appetite and cause weight loss. But is there any science to back this up?

“The first thing to consider is that, when a person decides to have an ear-stapling procedure done, they already have the intention to lose weight,” says UAB anesthesiologist Anne V. Xavier, M.D. “That’s a powerful force in itself. You should also consider the ‘placebo effect,’ in which you want something to work, so there is a greater chance that it will.

“From a physiological standpoint, we know that acupuncture can stimulate the vagus nerve through its auricular branch—its ear branch—and that can have an effect on the stomach,” Xavier continues. “Acupuncture releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which can act on the muscles of the stomach, decreasing appetite. Acupuncture can also release endorphins, which relieve stress. Neurotransmitters are released by ear stapling, as well, and these may suppress appetite and also alleviate depression. When endorphins are released, people are not as depressed, and so they might not eat as much. Nobody knows all the pieces of the puzzle, but I think that all of these things play into it.

“One thing that concerns me about this procedure is that the staples are left in for a lengthy period of time, as opposed to acupuncture, in which the needles are removed fairly quickly,” says Xavier. “These staples are inserted into the cartilage of the ear canal, which doesn’t have a very good blood supply, so the risk of infection is there—especially if someone doesn’t have a strong, healthy immune system.”

Julius Linn, M.D., editor of the UAB Health System’s “Dear Doctors” column, notes that ear stapling does not require a license in most states and is not yet regulated by medical practice laws or public health departments in many states, including Alabama. There have been reports of untrained practitioners operating out of their cars. And no controlled studies of ear stapling have been published, Linn notes, so there is no documented scientific evidence of the procedure’s benefits or risks.

“It’s my opinion that an increasing number of overweight Americans are anxious to try almost anything to lose weight,” Linn says. “Especially if it doesn’t involve dieting and exercise.”

— Russ Willcutt