Ear problems

There are three parts of the ear that can cause pain and discomfort – the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear.

Outer ear problems

Outer ear problems occur in the area between the external part of the ear (auricle) and the eardrum. The eardrum is the thin sheet of tissue that passes sound waves between the outer and middle ear. These problems are often because of excess earwax buildup or infection. Usually, outer ear problems don't cause fever, but this isn't always the case.

Outer ear problems are more common in children. Call your child's healthcare provider if you are unsure or if your child is young. It’s probably an outer ear problem if you can say yes to any of the following:

  • My child’s outer ear aches or feels blocked.
  • The pain gets worse when I wiggle my child’s ear.
  • My child's outer ear is red or swollen.
  • My child went swimming recently.

Middle ear problems

Your middle ear may have been injured or infected recently. Over time, certain growths or bone disease can also harm the middle ear. Left untreated, middle ear problems often lead to lifelong hearing loss. There are two types of hearing loss - conductive and sensorineural. One or both kinds can occur. Injury, infection, certain growths, or bone disease can cause your symptoms. A ruptured eardrum or a long-lasting (chronic) ear infection may be painful and decrease hearing.

Symptoms

  • Hearing loss in one or both ears
  • Fluid, often smelly, draining from the ear
  • Pain, pressure, or discomfort in the ear
  • Ringing in the ear

Conductive and sensorineural hearing loss

Sound waves may be disrupted before they reach the inner ear. If this happens, conductive hearing loss may occur. The ear canal can be blocked by wax, infection, a tumor, or a foreign object. The eardrum can be injured or infected. Abnormal bone growth, infection, or tumors in the middle ear can block sound waves.

Sound waves may not be processed correctly in the inner ear. If this happens, sensorineural hearing loss may occur. Permanent hearing loss is most commonly associated with sensorineural problems.

The tests and evaluations used to diagnose what type of hearing problem you have will depend on your symptoms.

Inner ear problems

There are two parts of the inner ear. One part (hearing canal) is for hearing. The other part (balance canal) is for balance.

The canals are filled with a fluid called endolymph. The level of this fluid is maintained by a small organ called the endolymphatic sac. In the hearing canal, sound waves cause vibrations in the endolymph. The inner ear detects these sound waves and sends nerve impulses to the brain. The sound we hear is a result of the brain's interpretation of these nerve impulses.

In the balance canals, change in position causes movement of the fluid. This movement is detected in the balance portion of the inner ear, and nerve impulses are sent to the brain.

The endolymphatic sac keeps inner ear fluid at a constant level. The balance canals collect balance information. The hearing canal collects sound information. The hearing and balance nerves carry information to the brain from both parts of the inner ear.

When crystals in the ear canals shift into the wrong place, you may experience benign positional vertigo (BPV). Vertigo usually occurs when you move your head in a certain way. This can happen when turning in bed, bending, or looking up. Because BPV comes on quickly, you should think about if you are safe to drive or do other tasks that need your full attention.

BPV:

  • Causes vertigo that last for seconds. Vertigo can occur several times a day, depending on body position.
  • Doesn’t cause hearing loss
  • Often goes away on its own. But it but may go away sooner with treatment.

Infection or inflammation

Sometimes the semicircular canals swell and send incorrect balance signals. This problem may be caused by a viral infection. Depending on the cause, your hearing can be affected (labyrinthitis). Or your hearing can remain normal (neuronitis).

Infection or inflammation:

  • Causes vertigo that lasts for hours or days. The first episode is usually the worst.
  • Can cause hearing loss
  • Often goes away on its own. But it may go away sooner with treatment.

You may need vestibular rehabilitation if you have balance problems that don't go away.

Meniere’s disease

This condition is uncommon. It happens when there is too much fluid in the ear canals. This causes increased pressure and swelling. It affects balance and hearing signals.

Meniere’s disease may:

  • Cause vertigo that last for hours
  • Cause hearing problems that come and go. The problems are usually in one ear and get worse over time.
  • Cause buzzing or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Cause a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear
  • Cause any of these symptoms: vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus, or ear fullness to last a lifetime

Treatments

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Treatments for Ear problems

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Symptoms and Screenings for Ear problems

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Causes and Preventions for Ear problems

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Education and Resources for Ear problems

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Support groups for Ear problems

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