Many people complain from time to time about having “plugged ears”. This sensation typically refers to the ear canal or ear drum area. This sensation may be chronic, may come and go, or may be a new sensation. To an audiologist or otolaryngolotist, plugged ears can mean potentially several conditions, some as benign as earwax (cerumen) and some serious enough to warrant MRI or other imaging studies.

In children and many adults, plugged ears will often signal eustachian tube dysfunction. This tube connects the air space behind the eardrum to the throat. It is the avenue through which we clear our ears when we change altitudes, and through which middle ear fluid can drain into our throat. If the tube becomes congested and stops allowing air upward and fluid downward, a vacuum can result, pulling the eardrum back, creating “conductive” hearing loss and often drawing fluid from the tissues lining the middle ear space.

One very quick, painless test, known as a tympanogram, can let an audiologist know immediately if fluid can be ruled out. This clever test plays a tone into the ear canal while sweeping the pressure until it finds the pressure at which the eardrum vibrates most freely. This has been found to be equal to the pressure behind the drum. If the pressure is “negative” when it vibrates, or if the drum does not move when stimulated, the eustachian tube may be suspect.

One three second test can tell us the status of: movement of the eardrum (tympanic membrane), perforations of the drum, the ossicles (the three tiny bones behind the drum), the openness of the eustachian tube, patency (openness) of ventilation tubes that have previously been inserted in the the drum, and the nature of any hearing loss detected in the hearing test booth (conductive, sensorineural or mixed loss).

The information gathered from this test can then help guide the most appropriate treatment.

If you encounter a sensation of plugged ears, ask an audiologist about a tympanogram and hearing test battery sooner than later!