NPR’s Nancy Shute describes tinnitus and the current state of work on getting rid of it.
For the past eight months I’ve had ear problems that are similar although more vexing because various doctors can’t figure out what it is.
One morning I woke up with an allergy-caused runny nose. It went away quickly but my ears felt clogged like I had some water in them from a shower. That clogged feeling changed in small ways, one ear feeling more clogged than the other but it never went away. This problem makes it quite difficult to know where a sound is coming from because my stereo hearing is now un-calibrated. It also makes hearing a phone conversation tougher because high end noise is breaking up, like distortion from a cheap speaker.
I eventually went to our doctor because I had to fly and I was scared I’d rupture an ear drum. We tried a steroid to kill what might have been a sinus infection fast for the flight but the ear problems remained and I cancelled the flight. Went to an ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor) and had my hearing tested and my ears examined further. No recommendation except time. Two months passed and no change and it was really driving me nuts and I decided to go to another ENT who happens to be an old friend of ours. This ENT told me authoritatively that I could fly because the problem wasn’t causing my eustachian tubes to close. I did fly and had no problem except the plane’s engine noise was more annoying than usual and I used noise canceling headphones to drown it out.
My doctor ordered a CAT scan of my sinus which showed nothing wrong. The second ENT thinks it might be a problem with my cochlea but he’s not sure. So, three doctors visits and an expensive CAT scan later the only thing I’ve learned is that I can fly, but the problem persists.
Since then I’ve flown numerous times and the pressurization has never bothered my ears. The problem remains and at times it drives me crazy. While this probably isn’t tinnitus (I don’t hear ringing) I have empathy for anyone suffering from that problem. The part of this NPR piece that piques my interest is the idea that an initial problem can leave an imprint on a brain and even though the problem is gone one might continue to suffer with it because the brain attempts to adapt to it. Whether this is true in my case or not my guess is that this happens with many physiological problems.