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What is the ear?
Your ears are organs that detect and analyze sound. Located on each side of your head, they help with hearing and balance.
What is the main function of the ear?
Your ears have two main functions: hearing and balance.
Hearing: When sound waves enter your ear canal, your tympanic membrane (eardrum) vibrates. This vibration passes on to three tiny bones (ossicles) in your middle ear. The ossicles amplify and transmit these sound waves to your inner ear. Once the sound waves reach your inner ear, tiny hair cells called stereocilia transform the vibrations into electrical energy and send it along nerve fibers to your brain.
Balance: Your inner ear contains semicircular canals filled with fluid and hair-like sensors. When you move your head, the fluid inside these loop-shaped canals sloshes around and moves the hairs. The hairs transmit this information along the vestibular nerve to your brain. Finally, your brain sends signals to your muscles to help you stay balanced.
Where are my ears located?
Your ears are on either side of your head, directly over your temporal lobe. This part of your brain is responsible for hearing, speech, memory and some emotion.
What are the parts of the ear?
The three main parts of your ear include the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Your tympanic membrane (eardrum) separates your outer ear and middle ear.
Outer ear (external ear)
Your outer ear is the part of your ear that’s visible. It’s what most people mean when they say “ear.” Also called the auricle or pinna, your outer ear consists of ridged cartilage and skin, and it contains glands that secrete ear wax. Its funnel-shaped canal leads to your eardrum, or tympanic membrane.
Your middle ear begins on the other side of your tympanic membrane (eardrum). There are three tiny bones in this area — the malleus, incus and stapes. (Healthcare providers refer to these three bones as the ossicles.) They transfer sound vibrations from your eardrum to your inner ear. Your middle ears also house the eustachian tubes, which help equalize the air pressure in your ears.
Your inner ear contains two main parts: the cochlea and the semicircular canals. Your cochlea is the hearing organ. This snail-shaped structure contains two fluid-filled chambers lined with tiny hairs. When sound enters, the fluid inside of your cochlea causes the tiny hairs to vibrate, sending electrical impulses to your brain.
The semicircular canals, also known as the labyrinthine, are responsible for balance. They tell your brain which direction your head is moving.
Conditions and Disorders
What are some ear problems?
There are many diseases and conditions that can affect your ears, including infection, eustachian tube dysfunction, swimmer’s ear and more.
Ear infection (otitis media)
Ear infections most commonly occur in your middle ear. Otitis media develops when bacteria and viruses become trapped in your middle ear. This type of infection is more likely to affect children than adults. Ear infection treatment usually involves antibiotics. In severe cases, ear tubes may be necessary.
Eustachian tube dysfunction
Your eustachian tubes connect your middle ears to your throat. When you yawn, sneeze or swallow, your eustachian tubes open to equalize the pressure inside of your ears. If these tubes become clogged, it’s called eustachian tube dysfunction. Symptoms include tinnitus, muffled hearing, sensation of fullness and possible ear pain.
Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa)
Swimmer’s ear is an ear canal infection caused by bacteria or fungi. Getting water in your ear can cause this condition. Swimmer’s ear can also occur if you get hair spray or other irritants inside of your ear canal. Additionally, it’s common for people to injure their ear canal with cotton swabs. (Note: When ear cleaning, you should never place cotton swabs inside of your ear canal.)
If you get a hole in your tympanic membrane, it’s called a ruptured eardrum. (Your eardrum separates your outer ear from your middle ear.) Infection, trauma, loud sounds or foreign objects in your ears can cause a ruptured eardrum. In most cases, a ruptured eardrum will heal on its own in a few weeks. But sometimes, it requires surgical repair, such as tympanoplasty.
Otosclerosis is when abnormal bone remodeling occurs in your middle ear. Bone remodeling is a normal lifelong process in which existing bone tissue replaces itself with new bone tissue. When this process doesn’t go as expected, however, it can cause health problems. With otosclerosis, the tiny bones inside of your middle ear (the malleus, incus and stapes) become hardened and stop vibrating. As a result, sound doesn’t travel properly. Surgery is usually necessary to treat otosclerosis.
Perichondritis occurs when the skin of your outer ear becomes infected. This condition is usually the result of injury or trauma, such as piercings, contact sports or ear surgery. Antibiotics are necessary to treat perichondritis. In rare cases, you may need surgery to drain any pus from the area.
Vestibular neuritis occurs when the vestibular nerve in your inner ear becomes inflamed. People with this condition experience a sudden vertigo attack, which is often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Your healthcare provider will treat vestibular neuritis with medication and possible physical therapy.
This chronic condition affects your inner ear. Common symptoms include dizziness, vertigo and a feeling of fullness in the ear. Most of the time, Meniere’s disease improves on its own over time. However, in severe cases, surgery might be necessary.
Cuts, fractures and blunt force trauma can cause ear injury. If damage is severe, surgery may be necessary to address the problem. This may include surgery to preserve hearing or cosmetic surgery to improve the appearance of your ear.
Ear tumors may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Types of noncancerous ear tumors include keloids, sebaceous cysts, osteomas and exostoses (bone growths). Noncancerous ear tumors usually require surgical removal.
Cancers that can affect your ears include melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Treatment for these conditions depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, and whether or not it has spread to other parts of your body.
What are some symptoms of common ear conditions?
There are a number of symptoms that could indicate a problem with your ears. These warning signs include:
- Ear pain.
- Ear infection.
- Clogged ears.
- Muffled hearing.
- Itchy ears.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- A feeling of fullness in your ears.
- Ear drainage.
What tests will my healthcare provider use to check my ears?
Your healthcare provider can perform a wide range of tests to check your ears. Common hearing tests include:
- Pure-tone testing. This simple hearing test involves wearing headphones and raising your hand when you hear a “beep.” Pure-tone testing tells your healthcare provider the quietest sound you can hear at different frequencies.
- Middle ear tests. These tests can determine how well your eardrum functions. They can also tell your healthcare provider if you have a ruptured eardrum.
- Speech testing. Sometimes, your provider may give you a speech test to determine how well you hear and repeat words.
- Auditory brainstem response (ABR). During this test, your provider places electrodes on your head. These electrodes record your brain activity. The goal is to see how your brain responds to sounds played through headphones. The ABR is often performed on people who can’t complete a typical hearing screening.
- Otoacoustic emissions (OAEs). This test determines how well your cochlea works. When sound reaches your inner ear, the tiny hairs inside of your cochlea vibrate. This vibration produces a very soft sound that echoes back into your middle ear (an otoacoustic emission, or OAE). If you have significant hearing loss, your inner ear won’t produce OAEs at all.
How can I properly care for my ears?
Here are some tips to keep your ears as healthy as possible:
- Keep your ears dry by wearing ear plugs when swimming.
- Don’t use cotton swabs to clean your ear canal.
- Wear protective equipment when playing contact sports.
- Turn the volume down when listening to music through headphones.
- Wear ear plugs if you’re around loud noises.
- Visit your healthcare provider for routine ear examinations.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your ears are essential for hearing and balance — and proper care ensures that your ears work as well as possible. If you start to develop symptoms like ear pain, tinnitus or muffled hearing, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider right away. They can help you find the cause of your problem and recommend appropriate treatment.
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