When I first started writing this story I had intended it to go in a completely different direction. For some reason I wound up going into great detail about the issues I've had with the health of my ears, which was not what I originally set out to do. I decided that as long as I took the time to document my ear problems, I might as well post them. Perhaps somebody might stumble across this page who is dealing with ear problems themselves. Perhaps my descendants may be curious to know about some of the ailments from which we suffered "way back when." Perhaps you just enjoy reading about other people's pain.
Whatever reason you may have, here is the history of my ear problems:
In general I am a fairly healthy person. Most of my ailments are the results of accidents or self inflicted abuse (like from the day I decided to compete in a 21 mile bicycle race around the city without having ridden my bike at all since the previous summer.) A few times each year I catch the common cold, and occasionally I succumb to influenza but for the most part I don't have much in the way of afflictions.
One of the few physical issues I deal with is congenital Eustachian tube dysfunction. To put that in layman's terms, the tubes that connect the inner ear to the back of my throat were underdeveloped when I was born. The result of this is that the Eustachian tubes are small enough that they become easily blocked, preventing them from properly equalizing the pressure of the middle ear.
Most people suffer from blocked Eustachian tubes on occasion. It happens when you have a cold or an allergy attack and your ears feel like you've got cotton stuffed in them. If it gets bad enough, an earache can develop. But usually after a few days when health returns the tubes drain and the pressure is released. The hearing returns and the earache goes away.
In my case, however, it doesn't go away. My Eustachian tubes have a tendency to act like one-way check valves which will allow pressure to build in my ears but will not drain to release the pressure. This causes the "plugged head" feeling to be sustained for months, rather than a few days. The pressure will continue to build causing my hearing to deteriorate and the ear pain to increase. Eventually the pressure becomes too great for the eardrum to withstand, and the eardrum will rupture. While this sounds painful, the point at which the eardrum breaks actually comes as a relief because the intense earache caused by the pressure is greatly reduced. At this point the ear will still hurt, but noticeably less than before. As a gross side effect of the eardrum bursting is the blood and infection that had built up in the inner ear will drain out of the ear canal, causing me to have to keep cotton stuffed in my ears to absorb the mess.
The first time I had this happen was in sixth grade. It was Saturday morning of April 19th, 1980. My best friend's birthday party was scheduled for 2:00 that afternoon. His birthday was actually on the 15th, but that being a school day the party was postponed until the following Saturday. I woke up early that morning, as I did every Saturday, in order to watch cartoons. However this particular morning I had an earache like none other I'd ever experienced.
I went into the living room and lay down on the couch to watch TV. I don't remember much about the morning other than the suffering. By mid morning my mom had figured out that this was no ordinary ear ache, and had called the doctor's office. They had a limited staff that worked on Saturdays, and said that they would work us into their schedule. My mom took me to the doctor and I sat in agony in the waiting room. By the time the nurse called our name and we went back to the examining room, there was little I could do but lay on the table and writhe in pain.
As we waited, my mother chided me for making a bigger deal out of an earache than I should. The reason for this probably stemmed from the fact that as a family we had little money and this doctor visit was going to make buying groceries challenging for the next month. I just laid on the table with tears streaming down my face. I'd never felt pain like this before.
A few minutes before the doctor arrived, we heard an interesting sound. It was not unlike the gurgling of a coffee maker when it gets down to the last few drops of water in the reservoir. It sounded deafening to me, and my mom heard it as well. She asked me if I made that noise, and I told her I thought it came from my ear. For good reason, she assumed I was making this up and had really made the noise in some other fashion. I was surprised myself; normally you don't experience a sound like that coming out of a hole in the head that doesn't also include a tongue.
A couple of seconds later, it happened again. My mother who had been watching me now agreed that it couldn't have come from anywhere else but my ear. She ventured closer and looked at my ear while I remained dumbfounded and still on the cold metal table.
Like the groaning of a tall tree slowly crackling, and then growing louder and louder until it crashes to the ground, my ear let loose. With a final series of raspy pops, the eardrum burst. The mass of fluid being held in my inner ear suddenly found an escape route, and a green geyser suddenly erupted from my ear.
In horrified shock my mother started grabbing tissues to try and contain the mess. I just sat there, unsure of what was really happening. I could feel the fluid coming out of my ear and running down my neck. Being new to this experience, however, for all I knew my brains were making their escape. In all reality, the amount of fluid that came out was not much; probably less than a tablespoon. However when a certain body part normally produces no liquid, even a small amount can seem like the floodgates of Hoover dam have just been opened. After about a minute and the eruption had finished, I sat up. I was feeling much, much better. The excruciating pain had subsided, replaced by a manageable ache.
When the doctor came in, I was calmly sitting on the exam table feeling comparatively decent, and my mother was going a million miles an hour. She explained in great detail every bit of what had transpired only moments beforehand. The doctor listened, examined my ear and determined I had a severe ear infection that had ruptured my eardrum. He sent me home with a prescription for some antibiotics and basically said that the infection should resolve itself in a few weeks.
By this point I was feeling so much better that I begged to go to my friend's birthday party that afternoon. My mother balked at the idea, but after a while she noted my marked improvement and relented. I went to the party with some cotton in one ear, but other than that had no real issues with the way I felt.
When my mom filled the antibiotic prescription, they turned out to be the size of horse pills. They were nearly as big as my eleven-year-old thumb. There was no way I was going to be able to swallow these things short of having someone shoot them down my throat with a blow gun. So our solution was to dissolve the pills in a cup of hot tea, which I would then drink. The resulting flavor of the tea was rather unique, to put it mildly. Thirty years later as I write this I still have a distinct memory of how that tea tasted.
I continued to deal with ear problems throughout my middle school years and into high school. During the 11th grade a chronic infection had degraded my hearing to the point where it was difficult to hear my teachers during class. At this point in time my parents sent me to an ENT specialist to see if there was anything that could be done.
After a full examination, the ENT diagnosed my problem as congenital. I was born with undersized Eustachian tubes and there was little that could be done to fix that particular problem. However, he had hope that if he could completely cure my ear infection then there was a chance my tubes would "clean out" and then start functioning well enough to maintain stasis. He noted that I didn't have any major issues during the first decade of my life, and hypothesized that I just got a whopper of an infection that caused my initial issue, and that infection had never completely gone away.
His treatment was threefold. First, he put me on a round of strong antibiotics. Second, he prescribed a long stint with a nasal spray to keep my sinus passages open and give the tubes a better chance to drain. This was my introduction to what became a seven-year battle with nasal spray addiction. No joke, they have warnings on the label of the nasal spray bottle for a reason. The stuff is physically addicting and a bugger to kick. I finally rid myself of that monkey in the spring of 1993, suffering through a month of cold-turkey hell where it felt as though someone had poured concrete into my nasal cavities.
His third method of treatment was to install vent tubes in my eardrums to properly equalize the ear pressure and give my ears a chance to heal. This is what is known as a tympanostomy. Ear tubes are pretty common in young children. The older a person gets the rarer it is to need them. As a high school student who had never had them before, I wasn't sure what to expect.
The procedure wasn't pleasant, but wasn't too bad. The doctor had a microscope that allowed him to look deep into my ear, and work on the eardrum without touching the walls of the ear canal. First a small hole was cut in the eardrum. Next, he suctioned out all of the fluid that had built up inside the ear. This part of the procedure was actually sickly pleasant. It was like having a deep itch inside your head scratched for the first time in years. Finally, the tubes were placed in the eardrum. This was the most painful part of the process. As the tube was inserted it caused a bolt of pain to shoot down the side of my neck. Having the second tube inserted in the other ear was even worse, as I knew what was coming. Thankfully the whole procedure didn't take more than 15 minutes.
After a few minutes my ears started to recover. It was wonderful to hear again! The vent tubes allowed my ears to properly equalize pressure and drain out any fluid before it had a chance to build up. The downside was that I could no longer swim without earplugs, but this was a small concession to make.
The tubes would stay in place for about a year before they would eventually fall out. One day I would notice my ear starting to plug up. Soon after that, I would feel something moving around inside my ear. Shaking my head around in the same manner one uses to expel water from the ear would cause the tube to fall out of the ear canal.
Unfortunately, my ENT was incorrect in hoping that keeping my ears open for a time would allow my body to kick the infection and for my ears to stay open for good. When the tubes came out, my ears returned to their previous state.
And so I found myself in a cycle. My ears would become infected and plug up. My hearing would degrade and the pain would grow until either the eardrum ruptured, or I grew sick of it and returned to the ENT to have another set of tubes put in place. All told, I have had tubes placed in my ears six or seven times.
The last time I had tubes put in was in the late 1990s. This set was of the "T" design which is intended to stay in place long term. Unfortunately, this set came out in roughly four months. Upon returning to the doctor, he discovered that the repeated insertion of tubes in my eardrums had caused the holes to grow larger. At this point in time he suggested going without tubes for a while to see if the holes would heal and naturally close themselves.
Upon returning to the ENT for a checkup, he found no change in the size of the holes if the eardrum. This meant that the eardrums did not appear to be healing by themselves. He mentioned a surgical procedure to do a skin graft to repair the holes as an option. The other option was to live with it. I decided to live with the issue as long as it wasn't causing me additional problems.
The perforated eardrums themselves actually act very similar to tubes: it allows the air pressure in my inner ear to equalize with the air pressure outside my ear and allows any excess fluid to drain. I do suffer from a partial hearing loss due to the holes, however the hearing loss isn't near as dramatic as when my ears are plugged shut.
In early 2007, at my wife's insistence, I met with a different ENT to get a second opinion and see if there was anything new in the medical world that might have changed in the ten years since I last saw an ear specialist. Upon examination, he determined that the perforations still exist and that there's not much that can be done. He said that there was some experimental surgery going on in Minneapolis where they cut away parts of the skull in order to resize the inner ear, but that the operation was risky and had no guarantees of fixing the problem. Seeing as for the most part I am able function without ear problems intruding into my life, I opted to live with the issue.
So there you have it. More information about my ears than you ever wanted to know.
This page last updated on 07/11/2018