Common Disorders of the Ear

Even though hearing loss is common, its sources are as varied as the people who experience it. While some conditions are temporary, others can result in permanent and profound hearing loss.

Ear Infections

Ear infections are the second most commonly diagnosed illness in children in the U.S. In fact, five out of six children have had at least one ear infection by their third birthday. This inflammation of the middle ear happens when fluid builds up behind the eardrum, causing pain and pressure in the ears. The term "ear infection" actually refers to three different illnesses, each with its own cause and treatment.

  • Acute Otitis Media (AOM) - The most common type of ear infection, AOM occurs when parts of the middle ear become swollen and infected while fluid is trapped behind the eardrum. It can happen with or without a fever and with or without other upper respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose or congestion.
  • Otitis Media with Effusion (OME) - When fluid is trapped behind the eardrum, it is known as otitis media with effusion. Someone with OME may not have any other symptoms and the patient may not know the fluid is even there until the doctor examines them with an otoscope.
  • Chronic Otitis Media with Effusion (COME) - When fluid remains in the ear for a long time or infections occur over and over, OME becomes chronic. This makes it more difficult for the patient to fight off new infections and can affect their ability to hear.

Ear infections often happen as a secondary illness after a child develops a cold or other upper respiratory virus. Bacteria is drawn to the ear where it causes an infection. This infection then causes painful fluid buildup. If the ear infection is bacterial, an antibiotic will help the patient feel better within a few days. However, patients should always revisit their doctor at the end of their treatment to determine if the fluid behind the eardrum has completely resolved. Patients with chronic ear infections should consider having small ventilation tubes surgically placed in their eardrums to help prevent fluid buildup and preserve their hearing.

Otosclerosis

Part of what makes hearing such a complex and delicate process is the anatomy of the middle and inner ear. Inside of your ear are three tiny, articulating bones called the ossicles. Each bone is named for the shape it resembles - incus in Latin translates to anvil, malleus translates to hammer, and stapes translates to stirrup. These bones are connected to both the eardrum and the inner ear, and translate soundwaves into pressure waves that are then carried through the inner ear and introduces to the brain.

Otosclerosis happens when there is a buildup of bone-like tissue that prevents the ossicles from functioning the way they should. With spongy tissue in the way, the three bones in the middle ear cannot efficiently transmit vibration from the eardrum to the inner ear. What results is a significant hearing loss. Should that tissue continue to spread to the inner ear, it can cause permanent damage to the way the nerves work.

While the cause of otosclerosis is shrouded in mystery, research suggests there is a hormonal variant that can cause tissue to grow in the middle ear. Pregnant women and people who are immune compromised are more likely to develop otosclerosis than an otherwise healthy person.

Treatment options vary based on how extensive the otosclerosis is and how much it affects a person’s hearing. Mild hearing loss may only require hearing aids to help the person compensate for the excess tissue in their middle ear. More moderate to severe hearing loss, especially if it is gradually worsening, may require surgery to remove the tissue and replace the ossicles with artificial bones.

Meniere’s Disease

While the inner ear is vital for moving soundwaves to nerves where they are translated into speech or music, it is also a vital part of how a person maintains their balance. If the cochlea, part of the inner ear, becomes damaged or infected, it is possible that a person will experience dizziness, vertigo or even tinnitus (ringing in the ears). When the organ of Corti, a part of the cochlea, becomes swollen, a person is experiencing Meniere’s Disease. More than 45,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year, yet it does not have a specific cause or cure.

Treatment for Meniere’s Disease may include medication that controls dizziness and devices that push air pulses to the middle ear. However, 60 percent of people diagnosed with the disease will either heal on their own or can control balance and tinnitus symptoms with changes in lifestyle, drugs, or other devices.

Cancer of the Ear

Many people are surprised to hear that it is possible to have cancer of the ear. But, when was the last time you put sunblock on your outer ear? Or when was the last time you had your ears examined for tumors the way you would other parts of the body?

Cancer of the Outer Ear

The majority of cancers of the ear happen in the outer ear and most are squamous cell carcinomas. This preventable type of cancer usually happens after long periods of sun exposure without protective hats or sunblock. Most often, these scabbed areas of skin with irregular oozing are on the upper edge of the outer ear. Treatment often includes surgery to remove the affected skin.

Cancer of the Auditory Canal

The auditory canal is the tube that leads from your outer ear to the middle ear. This cancer is rare, but it often happens in people who have a long history of outer ear cancer. Symptoms include blood-tinged discharge from the ear canal, hearing loss or even paralysis in the face on the affected side. Unfortunately, treatment includes surgery to remove parts of the middle ear and permanent hearing loss can result.

Cancer of the Middle Ear

While cancer of the middle ear is rare and the cause is unknown, people with a history of discharge from their ears are more likely to develop cancer of the middle ear. Symptoms include facial paralysis, discharge and hearing loss. Treatment includes surgery and radiation therapy aimed at the cancer cells that may not have been removed during surgery.

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