Do you have weird sounds in your ears that are more similar to a crackle than a ring or a buzz? Many people come to our offices and ask what that sound is. It can be a variety of things, most commonly from ear wax in the canal moving. Other causes can stem from the middle ear from the muscles, fluid build up, infection or other disorders of the joint at our jaws. If you start to hear crackling, come in to see an audiologist to remove the wax or examine and refer to an ENT if needed.
Common Causes Of Crackling In The Ear
Temporomandibular Joint and Muscle Disorder (TMJ)
The joint that connects the skull with the jaw is called the temporomandibular joint. This joint is used constantly in the human body while eating, talking, swallowing and takes on stress even as we sleep. If this joint becomes damaged it can lead to TMJ or Temporomandibular Joint and Muscle Disorder and can become painful. One symptom of TMJ is the sound of crackling as it is the noise of the disc inside the joint moving out of position. Seeing a dental specialist is very important to help lower risk of further damage.
Earwax is a natural defensive secretion in our ear canals to help keep our canals and ear drums free of debris. For some, this production can be too rapid and the build up can block the canal. Some individuals produce a wetter, sticky wax and when it is moved in the canal it makes a suction type of crackle sound. Wax naturally moves out of the canal, but if we use cotton swabs we push it down the canal and the natural movement is obstructed and the build up is not natural but has the same outcome. Audiologists for the most part love cleaning out ear canals and are the best provider for this service.
Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)
There is a tube with a valve that connects our throat to our middle ears which is called the Eustachian tube. This valve helps keep the air pressure equal between the outside world and our middle ears. The Eustachian tube naturally at rest is “closed” and pops open as we swallow most of the time. When we “pop” our ears we generally are forcing air up through our throat into our middle ear. As the tissues separate in our eustachian tube it creates a suction/clicking type of sound. If it doesn’t open or close as it is supposed to do, we can hear popping or crackling and can also create a feeling of fullness or an “under water” type of feeling.
There are several symptoms connected with Meniere’s disease, which not everyone will have, but can include progressive hearing loss, ear fullness, vertigo and crackling in the ears. These symptoms can occur suddenly, erratically and can last for a short and long period of time. If anyone does experience any of these symptoms it is important to get to an audiologist and ENT to examine them quickly.
Acute Otitis Media
The middle ear must have fresh air that has equal pressure to the outside world, if it does not the fresh air is absorbed into the tissue and creates a vacuum in the space which then closes the eustachian tube. Once the oxygen is depleted the tissue secretes a clear fluid in the middle ear which creates a perfect storm for an infection. Acute is defined as a bad, difficult or unwelcome situation which is present or experienced to a severe or intense degree. Therefore an acute infection comes on quickly and is intense and can be quite painful. One can hear the fluid build up as crackling in the ear, seeing a medical provider can ease the pain of an acute infection and can recommend the proper treatment, as if it is viral in nature, antibiotics may not help and the medical professional should be consulted.
Middle Ear Myoclonus (MEM)
Middle ear myoclonus or MEM is caused by a spasm in the muscles in the middle ear. The two muscles most likely would be the stapedius or tensor tympani and will shake from the spasm and then cause the eardrum or tympanic membrane to vibrate in which the person hears a crackle. The cause of MEM can be caused by acoustic trauma (very loud sound such as firearms) and stress. Hearing protection around loud sudden sounds is highly recommended, scientists have determined both muscles are protective to dampen sound levels entering into our auditory system and if exposed too much they quit working and let the sounds enter into the cochlea which can cause hearing loss.
What Is Eustachian Tube Dysfunction?
Between our throat and our middle ears there is a tube with a valve which is called the Eustachian tube. This valve which rests closed, helps keep the air pressure equal between the outside world and our middle ears. When we “pop” our ears we generally are forcing air up through our throat into our middle ear. If the Eustachian tube is “stuck” open or closed it can lead to other issues. If open, it is referred to as Patulous eustachian tube (PET) which many do not even realize they have unless there is a side effect of feeling of stuffiness (or ear is clogged), hearing your own voice louder than usual or a sudden onset of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) which then can lead someone to an audiologist.
Crackling in Ear: When Is Earwax A Problem?
Earwax is a protective substance in our ear canals, but at times a person can produce too much, or prevent the ear wax from working out of the ear and the canal can be plugged with wax. When there is a complete obstruction of the canal, hearing can be affected, tinnitus can occur, itching/irritation in the canal and even dizziness and pain. Many people feel they clean their ears fine with cotton swabs, but much of the time they push the wax down past the area where the canal can push it out naturally and create their own obstruction which then needs to be removed by a professional.
What Causes Excess Earwax Buildup?
There are many things that create excessive wax build up. One is a foriegn object, such as a hearing aid or ear mold in the ear. The body senses an unnatural object and sends signals to get rid of it, one of which is an increase of wax production to push it out. Some people have a lot of hair in their ear canals and wax has a more difficult journey to work its way out of the canal. Use of cotton swabs which push the wax deeper into the canal. Our wax production changes over time and we may produce more as we age. There are also physical challenges if the canal is very twisty and a small circumference can prevent the wax from moving out of the canal naturally.
How Is Earwax Buildup Treated?
Audiologists can use a variety of ways to remove ear wax. One, we are very familiar with the structure of the ear canal and can remove wax with little to no abrasions to the ear canal wall. Knowing a complete medical history also is extremely important when removing wax, for example if someone has diabetes, skin health is very important and may change how we treat it. We use softening agents to separate the wax from the canal wall so skin doesn’t come with the wax. Curette or removal tools with either a head lamp light used to see or a special otoscope to see while removal happens are useful, suction and irrigation. There are many specialized pieces of equipment that aid in this specialty, but are not necessary.
How Can I Remove Ear Wax At Home?
Once a physician or audiologist examines a person’s canal and health of the eardrum, home remedies can be used to control ear wax. Most need to realize we have earwax for a good healthy reason and the complete removal of it in our canals is not the healthiest choice. If there is too much production, then ear wax softening drops can be used with irrigation. We have drops in the office to use to soften wax and bulbs or syringes to gently irrigate the ear. This process should never be painful, if it is seen by a specialist immediately. We guide our patients to use body temperature water (if too hot or cold can cause severe vertigo) to rinse out the canal (usually in the shower so everything goes down the drain) up to 12 times to remove anything in the canal. It is not recommended to use ANY sharp object or candling. These home treatments cause more damage than they “treat”.
What To Do If My Healthcare Provider Recommended I Have My Ears Washed?
The best professional to remove earwax is an audiologist and many of us enjoy this procedure most of all! Your audiologist will be able to tell you if a professional should remove or if home remedies can be used in between appointments. The ear canal skin is very thin and can be damaged easily, please have the audiolosit help you keep your ear canal health top notch!