Why do ear plugs hurt so much?
January 4, 2010 5:05 PM   Subscribe

I experience excruciating pain when putting in and removing foam ear plugs. Why?

I never really liked ear plugs, but I find them useful in noisy hotels and on noisy airplanes. However, gradually over time, my ears have become resistant to the nice foam ear plugs. I am pretty sure I have about the softest ones available, and once they are in and fully expanded they don't really hurt.

But putting them in is like stabbing, and taking them out is even worse. I had my (not-ENT-MD) father look at them and he saw nothing particularly unusual, only perhaps a little redness.

Any suggestions as to why this might be happening or what I can do to mitigate it? Seeing a doctor is possible, but this is one of those issues where it is more of a hassle occasionally than a constant problem, so I am disinclined from trying to find a reasonable ENT I can communicate effectively with in semi-rural Japan. If I did go I'd like to have some ideas of what it might be beforehand so I can look things up and have some ideas of the appropriate vocabulary.
posted by that girl to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have had pain putting in ear plugs when I have had sinus infections and/or clogged eustachian tubes.
posted by dfriedman at 5:07 PM on January 4, 2010

Is it air pressure? Does swallowing while you put them in help?
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:08 PM on January 4, 2010

It feels more like ear canal pain than eardrum pain. Swallowing/clearing my Eustachian tubes does not help in any noticeable way.
posted by that girl at 5:17 PM on January 4, 2010

Could it be that you're allergic to the foam? Have you tried the pliable silicone earplugs in their place?
posted by headspace at 5:18 PM on January 4, 2010

I wear ear plugs a lot for sleeping because I sleep more soundly that way, don't get awakened by nieghbors, furnace, etc. I find that if I wear them for too many days in a row, I can get little... sores? ... sort of on the back of my tragus. These are, I assume, sort of raw spots from where my ear pushes against the plugs when I'm sleeping. Going a few days without it usually makes it go away and if for some reason I can't wait a few days I can move them around a little bit so they're not rubbing the raw spot. Doesn't sound like what you have, and your dad probably would have noticed, but that's what can sometimes make my ears sore.
posted by jessamyn at 5:24 PM on January 4, 2010

I'm not sure if this is similar to the pain you experience, but I sometimes get a sharp, stabbing pain in my ear that can stretch down into my neck. Earplugs exacerbate the problem badly. I used some heavy-duty ear wax cleaners and it fixed the problem. I used something my mom handed me so I'm not sure of the brand, but it was drops that you put in your ear for a few minutes and it bubbles/fizzes, then I washed it out with Q-tips and a waterpik.
posted by lilac girl at 5:29 PM on January 4, 2010

Try using a Q-tip covered with vaseline to coat the inside of your ear canal all the way up to the top, first thing in the morning, and leave it that way all day. When my ear canal gets raw from foam earplugs, a couple of days of that fixes things right up.

Also, remove the plugs slowly. If you give them a real yank, it will hurt more.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:31 PM on January 4, 2010

This link suggests that one of the risks with ear plugs is that they inhibit the removal of earwax, which apparently can cause pain in the ear canal.
posted by dfriedman at 5:32 PM on January 4, 2010

My experience has been exactly the opposite: using foam ear plugs regularly prevents any ear wax buildup at all. It turns out that's not good. Earwax, at least in small amounts, keeps the skin in the ear canal from drying out. That's why the vaseline helps.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:51 PM on January 4, 2010

I don't wear earplugs enough for them to have a significant effect on ear wax, which is why I am confused about the irritation issue as well (I wear ear plugs about once or twice a quarter). I think I'll try the vaseline thing, and also perhaps silicon earplugs, since they don't seem to go as far into your ear canal.

Allergies sound possible, since it has gotten progressively worse, and allergies do tend to do that, but I'm not sure why it is an immediate extreme contact pain, and why it doesn't hurt nearly as much once they are fully in. Removing them slowly also hurts no less than removing them quickly.
posted by that girl at 6:35 PM on January 4, 2010

Do they have a smooth surface or are they rough, like the classic yellow EAR plugs? The latter can be pretty uncomfortable.
posted by 6550 at 6:48 PM on January 4, 2010

I have been wearing ear plugs for at least 40 hrs. a week for about 7 years now. I had the same problem for years and it made my job unbearable. I tried every variety of disposable ear plug that I was offered at work. All of them gave me the same intense pain in my ear canal after a few days of wearing them.

After much complaining, I convinced the company to pay for a pair of custom ear plugs. I was sent to a doctor, who took molds of my ears and sent them off to be made into plugs that would fit into my ears without using any kind of pressure on my ear canal. After seeing the molds, the doctor explained why I experienced this pain: my ear canals bend in a really sharp and unusual pattern, which puts excessive pressure on parts of my ear canal when I wear any sort of foam plug.

I know it sounds like a hassle, I'd recommend asking an ENT what it would cost to get a pair of custom earplugs. My guess is that if you're consistently experiencing this kind of pain with foam plugs with only sporadic use, you probably won't ever be able to comfortably wear them.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:40 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Does the ear pain ever happen at any other times? Is it possible you have some mild TMJ pain issues? I do, and, occasionally, ear plug removal has been pretty unpleasant.
posted by kmennie at 11:19 PM on January 4, 2010

I have jaw clicking issues but no pain.

I may have weird-ear-canal problems, as I can't wear the in-ear headphones very well either. None seem to fit probably.
posted by that girl at 11:24 PM on January 4, 2010

This sounds a lot like swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa, or infection of the ear canal. (Note that that this isn't the same thing as the middle ear infections many people get as children.) See a doctor, or even a pharmacist - a course of medicated ear drops should fix this right up.
posted by embrangled at 1:46 AM on January 5, 2010

I don't know if you're aware, but it's easier to put the ear plugs in if you open your jaw. (Try sticking your little finger in your ear canal and opening and closing your jaw, to find out why.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:01 AM on January 5, 2010

A lot of motorcyclists wear ear plugs, and there ways to get custom-made silicone earplugs without visiting a doctor or waiting for them to be 'sent off' somewhere to be made. I got mine from Big Ear Inc (http://www.bigearinc.com/home/Default.aspx), but there are other vendors who provide the service, and even places that sell do-it-yourself earplug molding kits.

I tried for years to wear the foam earplugs and the pain always discouraged me; the custom earplugs have been very comfortable to wear for all-day rides for two years now. It makes a huge difference for me.
posted by 2xplor at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oooo, I have had swimmer's ear, and this is Definitely Not It. That hurt like stabbing, but All the Time.

It sounds like the best thing for me would be to look into silicone ear plugs, and maybe custom ear plugs. And also try the vaseline thing.
posted by that girl at 5:28 PM on January 5, 2010

I have a crooked ear canal, too (one worse than the other one, apparently,) and the foamies hurt my ears just like you describe. Not while they're in, just moving them, no matter how slowly.

Two things that may not be it, but check anyway:
Have an ENT look at your eardrum. No matter what I do to keep my ears as clean as I can, I get impacted earwax buildup that has to be removed at the clinic every couple of years. (Gross, and it hurts, too.) After that, though, I notice a marked decrease in the earplug removal pain.

When you roll up the foamies, do it slowly and gently, starting in the middle, and then roll out to the ends. The ends should make the shape (===) when you first start rolling, not }==={. Maybe it's superstition, but it makes mine hurt less.

I have a pair of reusable soft plastic triple-flange earplugs in a little carry case like a pill bottle for when I can predict I'll be in a loud place. Those don't hurt at all, unless they're so cold they're hard. Warm them up in my hands, and they're perfect.
posted by ctmf at 6:13 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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