Earlier this month, I caught a head cold. It was the kind of cold where my nose ran continually, to the point that I felt like I was losing brain matter. Then for a couple of days my right ear plugged up, making everything sound like my head was trapped in a tin. I could handle the runny nose and gravelly voice without too much drama, but the ear thing made me a little crazy and very irritable.
It’s human nature not to think too much about things until something goes wrong, and ears are no exception. Lately, we’ve seen a number of patients in the clinic with issues either directly or indirectly related to their ears. While all things ear-related may seem pretty straightforward, there’s a lot to know about ears from the realm of Chinese medicine, including the following:
As acupuncturists, we think of ear-related symptoms as having to do with your Chinese kidney system. Your kidney is the organ that’s responsible for your overall body constitution and the home to vital substances such as Yin and Yang. Each organ system has a sensory component, and for the kidney that component is hearing and your ears. The kidney is associated with growth, development, fertility, and even how well we age. When your kidney is depleted, one common sign that often shows up is a loss of hearing or ringing in your ears (tinnitus). Conversely, if you were to come into the clinic with tinnitus or hearing loss, we would always want to talk about the health of your kidney system.
As you age, tinnitus and hearing loss may become a fact of life. It’s a sign that the steady decline of your kidney essence, or body constitution, has affected your ears. Tinnitus may be alleviated through Chinese medicine, but it can take a long time—mostly because our job is undoing years of burning the candle at both ends and working under unrelenting stress—both of which deplete your kidney system.
From a Western perspective, tinnitus is your brain’s way of compensating for hearing loss; it’s working overtime to help you hear. Think of it as turning on your stereo system and turning the volume onto high, but without any music. You can hear a buzz, because your speakers are ramped up, but no sound is coming out.
It’s natural to experience some hearing loss as you age. However, that loss can be accelerated from exposure to loud noises. Loud traffic, living near the airport, and sitting in the front row at too many rock concerts can all damage your hearing.
Taking too much aspirin can also make your ears ring. That’s because the salicylates in aspirin are excreted through the kidneys, and stress to your kidneys can make your ears ring. The good news in this case, is when you stop taking aspirin and it’s been completely excreted from your body, the tinnitus should stop.
Ear problems can also arise from other causes. Clenching your jaws at night and temporalmandibular joint problems (also known as TMJ, which is the joint right in front of your ears) can affect your hearing and cause ear pain.
Blocked Eustachian tubes can plug up your ears and affect your hearing. This kind of blockage should resolve within a couple of days if it’s caused by a cold or flu, but if you’re suffering from chronic ear or sinus problems, it’s likely that digestive issues are causing your body to build up phlegm and dampness.
Also part of the sensory system of the ear is your inner ear, which is responsible for maintaining your balance and proprioception (your sense of where you are in space). Dizziness and vertigo are inner ear problems that tend to be diagnosed as internal wind in Chinese medicine. Essentially, wind is considered to be movement where there should be none, and beyond dizziness and vertigo, may include lightheadedness, tremors, twitches, and even numbness and tingling. In most cases, internal wind is caused by a kidney Yin depletion, which is a little like being down a quart of moistening Yin, which causes active Yang to rise upward triggering your symptoms.
Fortunately, my ear symptoms were short-lived. I got over my cold, clogged ears, and irritability within a couple of days. While you don’t think much about your ears and hearing until something is up, avoid really loud noises and keep your Chinese kidney system as healthy as possible is good prevention. Get enough rest, avoid long-term stress, and eat many darkly colored foods that you prepare yourself are good ways to start. Your kidneys will thank you!
*Image of “woman” via Shutterstock