Plugged Ears! Aural Fullness advice if you please!
November 29, 2014 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Hey everyone. For awhile now I have been living with aural fullness, meaning it feels like my ears are clogged but they are not. Not sure if my actual ability to hear has gone down, though, as I went to two audiologists and both say that my hearing is ok, though my right ear had trouble with certain frequencies I seem to remember that as a child I had alot of hearing infections if that means anything. I also have a case of tinnitus that can get intense at times. Ringing and stuff. I have read what I may be experiencing is called 'Aural Fullness'. Just a sense of fullness in the ears that can be caused by a long line of things. Does anyone know anything about this condition? I read that my whole issue might be a problem with my Eustachian tube, but if it was, wouldn't the audiologist notice that? I know I am not imagining this. I just want it to get better.
posted by Thanquol180 to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Audiologists are mostly concerned with testing your hearing. See if you can go to an ENT or an otolaryngologist (ear nose and throat doc) to have them take a look at the rest of you. I get this from time to time (the stuffed up ear feeling along with tinnitus, sometimes together and sometimes separately) and Sudafed often helps a lot. How long have you had this?
posted by jessamyn at 8:00 PM on November 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

I had that and it was because I was clenching my jaw at night causing everything to be irritated in that area. Also causes bad headaches. I thought my ears were stopped up too. I have a bite guard from the dentist that I use whenever it starts a acting up.
posted by tamitang at 8:02 PM on November 29, 2014

Well, when doctors look into your ears, they see the ear canal and ear drum, but they can't see the eustachian tube which is on the other side of the eardrum. When you have a full blown infection, they can see that the eardrum is irritated, but I don't think there would be any way for them to say with full confidence, just based on examination, that the eustachian tube is blocked. Often, when your tubes are blocked, you will develop an infection, but not always.

In the past, I've had problems with my eustachian tubes due to allergies. If you haven't been to an allergist, I would recommend it. Or, as suggested above, you could start with an ear, nose, and throat person.

Things you can do on your own for clogged tubes include taking a decongestant (like Sudafed), taking a mucous thinner, hot showers, and drinking lots of water. Things that you can discuss with your doctor include steroid nose sprays, and a short course of Prednisone.
posted by girl flaneur at 8:06 PM on November 29, 2014

Seconding tamitang that it might be a muscular thing, I have the same symptoms, and found out recently that it's because my jaw muscles are super tight (thanks, anxiety), after many frustrating conversations with ear, nose, and throat folks.
posted by ITheCosmos at 8:09 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can tell you that I was really prone to earaches and borderline ear infections (where doctors could never agree if I had an infection or not!) and ringing and dizziness and muffled hearing back when I lived in my hometown and had horrible allergies. Antihistamines helped, but I think getting out of that awful town is what made the big difference. My allergies decreased by like 80%, and now my ears are fine, knock wood. So, a little hope: you can have awful, screwed-up ears, and then they can get better.

It's a long shot, but have you tried having your ears flushed, to remove any wax buildup? Even if your doctors aren't seeing wax, I wonder if a good flush might help. And have you been to a dentist to get evaluated for TMJ? When I don't wear my night guard thing, my jaw joint does weird stuff that can feel like ear trouble. The other day my "ear" felt funky and it kept crackling when I leaned forward, until I figured out it was my damn jaw joint. I stretched my jaw a few times to relax it, and then the weirdness went away.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:30 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like an audiologist would have alerted you to any problems with wax buildup in your outer ear (i.e., ear canal), so I personally wouldn't do anything about that. Every good ENT I've seen has actually said that they're somewhat against the use of cotton swabs for a variety of reasons.

Agreed that it could be related to clenching/grinding of teeth at night. It could also be related to inflammation of your eustachian tube. Have you tried a good decongestant like true pseudoephedrine (you have to ask for this from the pharmacist now)? Or triamcinolone acetonide nasal spray? This is an OTC nasal steroid that requires use for a couple of weeks before you see results.

Do you have any other symptoms like autophony, or vertigo, or hyperacusis? If so, they could suggest other middle and inner ear disorders, but I wouldn't even go there at this point.
posted by bennett being thrown at 9:23 PM on November 29, 2014

Ugh, I have this, and a hearing test that confirmed no hearing abnormalities but all of the issues you mentioned. I feel like I could have written this question 2 years ago. No wax buildup but add me to the list of jaw interaction folks - I wear a nightguard to counteract my overnight bruxism which directly affects how stuffy my ear feels. Neither my doctor nor my dentist directly told me this, I figured it out though process of elimination after a doctor visit and a request to my dentist to try a nightguard, which was suggested anyway due to tooth wear. I also have a history of childhood ear infections (as in, multiple per year until I was 12) so I too wonder if that was some kind of risk factor. Best of luck - I know how annoying this can be.
posted by shortskirtlongjacket at 9:36 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you get any relief from Sudafed, often followed by a Valsalva maneuver? This is a daily routine for me due to a congenital birth defect with my tubes.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:29 AM on November 30, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for your replies everyone! I forgot to mention that I saw an ENT and he said everything looked normal. It's interesting that a jaw muscle problem could be the root of all this. I am going to see my main doctor tomorrow and discuss different medication options for me. As for how long I've had this, it's probably going on a year and a half, though it seems like it has been getting worse, but maybe that's just me.

I forgot that sometimes there can be a slight aching pain in my ears if that's telling of anything.

Again, thanks for responding! You're all being very helpful!
posted by Thanquol180 at 10:37 AM on November 30, 2014

Does the fullness have any kind of crinkly or crackling sounds when you swallow or try to perform the vasalva maneuver? That would be suggestive of some eustachian tube blockage as opposed to jaw stuff.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:44 AM on November 30, 2014

I'm a doctorate student in Audiology but I'm not your Audiologist and this isn't medical advice.

Aural fullness has two common causes and a few not so common ones.

Your Eustachian tubes are little tubes which run from your middle ear to your throat. Their job is to maintain atmospheric pressure in your middle ear and allow fluid to drain. You know how when you fly you get that funny popping in your ears? This is because the pressure change is making your Eustachian tubes not open and close properly and your getting pressure build up in your middle ear (this is why people chew gum or hold their mouths open to relieve pressure during a flight - generally chewing will open and close your Eustachian tube, bringing your middle ear back to atmospheric pressure).

The two common causes of aural fullness can both related to your Eustachian tubes: they are negative middle ear pressure and middle ear effusion. Middle ear effusion is basically gunk (usually mucous) collecting in your middle ear and is a result of middle ear infection (the common ear infection). Middle ear infections are so common in infants because their Eustachian tubes, which are the pathways for mucous to drain from your middle ear, are much more flat or lateral than adult Eustachian tubes, so the the fluid from the middle ear tends to just sit instead of draining downward to the throat. Negative ear pressure is when you have negative pressure in your middle ear, which can be a result of a middle ear infection (if you have an ear infection you almost always have negative middle ear pressure) or Eustachian tube dysfunction.

There are lots of reasons your Eustachian tubes may be dysfunctional, if that indeed is the cause of your aural fullness. People who have lots of ear infections as children tend to be more prone to similar issues through adulthood, sometimes even requiring permanent PE tubes in the ear drums to allow pressure to equalize and fluid to drain. Or, it could be a muscular thing, the result of strain on your jaw muscles if you clench or grind your teeth.

A doctor or audiologist can't see your Eustachian tubes with an otoscope. Often, but not always, if you have a lot of middle ear effusion, the ear drum will appear pretty red. But if you just have Eustachian tube dysfunction without infection, you probably won't see anything abnormal from otoscopy.

Did the audiologist run a tympanometry test on you? I can tell you that if you were my patient and complained of aural fullness, this would have been the first thing I would do. This would at least tell me what the pressure was in your middle ear and so we would know if there was a weird pressure thing going on or other middle ear pathologies. The tymp test is the one where they put a little probe in your ear and it pressurizes your ear and plays a tone. It's very fast.

Ear infections and negative middle ear pressure can have small effects on hearing (negative middle ear pressure will make your ear drum sort of sucked into your middle ear and reduce the admittance of sound waves to your middle ear; middle ear effusion will also block some of the sound energy from getting to your inner ear), but it's also completely possible to have a perfectly normal hearing test with effusion and/or negative middle ear pressure. Sometimes middle ear effusion or pressure changes can affect only some frequencies.

The tinnitus may or may not be related. Is the tinnitus coming seemingly from the center of your head or from just one ear?

The aching pain is a little worrisome, if the ENT said everything else looked normal. Ear pain is usually indicative of an infection, but could be something else as well.

There are a few scary but very rare causes of aural fullness, such as Cholesteatoma. However, if you are experiencing the fullness on both sides, this is highly unlikely.

So that's the deal basically. I would talk to your doctor in some detail about this and see what they say. Could be as simple a fix as some allergy meds or could be something intense. Impossible to say. If you see an audiologist again, definitely ask them to see if your tymps are normal.

Don't hesitate to MeMail me if you have any other questions.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:19 PM on November 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Had this. Basically, a cold plugged up my eustachian tube on my left side. Went through aural tests that claimed my hearing was perfectly normal. Could still hear EVERYTHING ON THE LEFT HALF OF MY BODY - joints moving, breathing, etc. Very annoying. Took increasingly strong rounds of steroids, which did nothing. Had all the usual passages checked out.

Then one day, months later, eating a really-too-hot plate of food, my ear popped clear.

It has since been really quick to get plugged, but it doesn't last. I am guessing I have some "scar tissue" from the long period of being plugged.

So, if you are a hot food person anyway, test your limits. Worst case, you need a lot of milk to chase those buffalo wings down, and some quality time tomorrow in the private, porcelain room.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:14 PM on November 30, 2014

I've had this for months. I had a URI in April that went into my ears and caused vertigo, which went away with the infection, but the sensation of fullness and 'plugged-ness' has persisted - like when you put your finger over your ear while singing to find pitch, I have in-my-head-voice when I speak. When the weather changes from fair to cold, wet, and windy, I'd get ear pain. Similar going out into cold from a warm house, or coming from a hot shower into a cool room.

Steroid spray and Sudafed did nothing, ENT said all looked normal, audiologist did the air puff test and hearing test. Apparently I have the hearing of a vigilant German Shepherd, and my tympanum is well-behaved.

Mom got adult middle ear infections, and I had ear infections as a kid. I know I clench and tense up on the affected side, with the tension headaches up the neck and shoulder. It's my dominant hand, and it's worse when I'm doing precision work. I hadn't realized how adjacent the TMJ is to the ear, and I'm pretty sure that's the issue with me.

We've had some ugly weather lately and I'm better than I was; the parrot screeching on my shoulder doesn't hurt anymore, and I've acclimated to most of the New England weather. But I haven't had that delicious cathartic pop. Maybe for Christmas.

Annoying as it has been, it's nice to read validation. It's really frustrating to be told 'well, everything looks normal.' I know it's unreasonable to mentally add ' you must be imagining it,' but in spite of myself I still can't help filling that part in - my problem, not theirs.
posted by Lou Stuells at 11:59 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh another thing - the glass bottle effect. You know, how you can blow across the top of a glass bottle? A sound-sensation very much like that, on the inside of my ear, when I breathe. That's reduced significantly only in the past month. I'm very grateful. Strangely it doesn't feel like my breath passes across whatever was causing it, anymore - perhaps some kind of swelling has gone down.

Either that or the larvae have migrated into another part of my head.
posted by Lou Stuells at 12:03 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This page has a good description of patulous Eustachian tube, which seems to go undiagnosed a lot and matches your symptoms. I get this sometimes and it is very annoying. Just throwing it out there in case it helps.

The diagnosis is visually confirmed by observing respiratory movements of the eardrum during forced breathing through one nostril. The syndrome can also be detected when the physician hears an amphoric sound when listening with a diagnostic tube in the patient’s ear. This sound is similar to that produced by blowing across the mouth of an empty bottle.

Patulous Eustachian tube syndrome should be suspected when a patient complains of a “stopped-up” ear but, under physical examination, the eardrum is normal in appearance and demonstrates good mobility, and there is no conductive hearing loss demonstrated.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:57 AM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: thank you so much everyone for your advice! I got some allergy medication today so I'm gonna see if that does anything. Next time I see an audiologist, I will ask about 'tymps'.
posted by Thanquol180 at 5:19 PM on December 8, 2014

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