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In general, there are three categories of ear pain – external, middle, and inner ear pain. The inner ear pain can cause dizziness, balance issues, nausea, hearing loss or a constant ringing sensation in the ear, also known as tinnitus. This type of ear infection commonly causes more hearing problems compared to the other two types. In extreme cases, this type of infection results in complete hearing loss or permanent damage to the vestibular system which is mainly responsible for balance.
Causes of Inner Ear Pain
1. Primary Causes
Most cases of ear pain occur due to an ear infection. This infection is viral, fungal, or bacterial and can result in inflammation, fluid buildup and extreme pain. It can also occur due to a flu or cough. In severe cases, an ear infection can lead to a high fever and temporary hearing loss. It is also usually very painful. Temporary ear pain can also occur due to the buildup of earwax in the ear canal which causes pressure buildup in the ear.
Inner ear pain is the least common type of ear pain and is mostly viral but can also be bacterial. The inner ear typically lasts longer and can result in more serious consequences like nausea, vertigo, and hearing loss. It might occur due to an inflammation which can be easily treated or might be a symptom of a more serious condition like meningitis, which can be viral, bacterial or fungal.
2. Secondary Causes of Inner Ear Pain
Several conditions might result in inner ear pain to manifest as a side effect. Irritation in the cranial nerve, dental disease, cervical spine arthritis, tumours, Bell’s palsy (weakening of facial muscles), temporomandibular joint dysfunction, anxiety and clinical depression, lung cancer, GERD and relapsing polychondritis (disease of the cartilage) might cause inner ear pain. Consult the doctor immediately if your ear aches or does not go away after repeated home remedies as it might be a sign of something more severe.
The most common cause of otalgia (ear pain), is dental problems, which cause the nerves connecting from the jaw to the ear to radiate the pain.
How the Ear Works
Before understanding the nuances involved in the diagnosis and treatment or ear pain, it is important to understand how the ear works.The ear is one of the most magical organs of the human body. Most human functions like speech, sound, music and balance is associated with the ear. As stated earlier, the ear has predominantly three regions, the external ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. The middle and the external ear is separated by the eardrum, and the middle ear is connected to the inner ear which connects to the back of the nose and throat by a passage caused the Eustachian tube. The middle ear consists of ear bones, intricately designed, and placed – the hammer, anvil and stirrup. These bones transmit the vibration to the auditory nerve via the cochlea.
The system is design in such a way that the sounds waves which cause the eardrum to vibrate, get translated into small but precise signals which the auditory nerve sends to the brain to interpret and understand. The whole design of the ear is wonderfully orchestrated, and the whole process gets completed in a fraction of a second. Such is the beauty and nature of creation.
The inner ear connects to the nervous system via large nerves like the vestibular and auditory nerves. It consists of the cochlea and ear canals which are filled with cushioning fluid called the endolymph and are semicircular in nature. The inner ear is also known as the labyrinth of the ear, due to its long and winding canals.
Diagnosis of Inner Ear Pain
The type of doctor who treats ear, nose and throat related problems is called an ENT specialist. Doctors specialised only in hearing are called audiologists. They usually diagnose the type of ear pain based on the symptoms and will probably use a medical instrument called otoscope which emits a narrow beam of light to examine the patient’s ear. They also use a ‘pneumatic otoscope’ to puff air into the ear, causing the eardrum to vibrate so that they can check if it is working correctly. Other tests for persistent pain include tympanometry, reflectometry, and tympanocentesis.
An MRI is also a useful scan to detect inner ear infections like inflammation in the ear canal, fluid buildup or growth on nerve tissue. A CT or computerised tomography scan is also used to check for thinning bone or fractures in the inner ear. Otherwise inner ear infection diagnosis is largely symptom-based.
Treatments of Inner Ear Pain
Below is the list of possible treatments or home remedies for people experiencing ear pain:
- Natural remedies to treat inner ear infections include garlic drops, tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar and even hydrogen peroxide.
- Antibiotics are used to treat a bacterial or a fungal infection. Painkillers like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin are also prescribed.
- Diphenhydramine, commonly known as Benadryl is usually subscribed to cure nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Valium or Ativa might also be prescribed to control the dizziness
- It is advised to use a warm compress against the ear to treat inner ear pain and to get some relief. For few, alternating between hot and cold packs for a repeated duration of around 20 minutes gives relief.
- A form of alternative medicine called Chiropractic has some successful records in which inner ear pain is treated by manipulating the body.
- Eating garlic or clove is a proven way to reduce ear pain. Its anti-microbial properties help fight infection and using garlic as ear drops might also prevent aggravation of the ear infection and help alleviate the ear pain. For that two-three garlic teeth, some mustard seeds can be cooked until it is brown, then the mix is made like a paste and strained. Two to three drops of the brown coloured liquid are then put into the ear in the form of eardrops.
- Onion is another alternative home remedy for ear pain. Similar to garlic, it must be cooked and crushed, and a few drops of the residual liquid can be put into the ear.
- It has been observed that chewing gum can relieve the inner ear pain.
- Breast milk or liquid gold as it is called these days is a wonder treatment as it has microbes which change as per the baby’s needs. Topical application of breast milk can also be useful for the baby. Some research suggests that it can be useful for helping adults as well.
- If the ear infections are repetitive, extreme and occur several times over months or a year, the specialist might perform a myringotomy where the surgeon cuts the eardrum to release the fluid trapped. They might also insert a small tube to ensure that the fluid drains effectively. These tubes, in most cases, fall off by themselves after about a year.
Patients must take care and rest when infected with ear pain. Sleeping on a pillow helps with the recovery. For young children below two years of age, parents must consult a doctor immediately if there are signs of ear pain. Vaccinating a child regularly can also prevent the onset of ear infections.
Prevention of Ear Pain
Though common, ear pain causes irritation and distress especially among young children. It generally occurs if the immunity is compromised for babies, due to the anatomy of the ear itself. The following precautions might reduce the occurrence of ear infections:
- Avoiding consumption of alcohol and smoking is a sure shot way to reduce the propensity to get inner ear pain.
- Washing hands regularly is an effective way to prevent transmission of bacteria which will avoid infections like a cough and cold, which might, inturn, result in an ear infection.
- Infants who are in the vicinity of smokers are exposed to the smoke second hand, and this increases the chance of getting affected by an ear infection.
- Avoid using antibiotics as much as possible. Ear infections are very likely to recur within three months of recovery from using antibiotics.
- Stress management like meditation, tai-chi or yoga can boost immunity and prevent inner ear infections, especially among women.
Ear infections are a common ailment, and most people are affected by it at some point in their lifetime, mostly in their childhood. Proper care and management and swift doctor consultations ensure that they are cured completely.