Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Updated July 1, 2004





Serous Ear Fears
(Otitis Media)
By Brian B. Carter, MS, LAc

Brian is an author, professional speaker, and a professor at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. He practices acupuncture and herbal medicine in sunny San Diego, California, and is now finalizing his first book.

I awoke at 6:30am. I didn't have to get up yet, but my right ear had been aching and interrupting my sleep for the last few hours. I tried ignoring it but it got worse, not better. It really hurt. You don't know me and sleep- I'm addicted to it. The only thing that can make me get up before dawn to go to a 24-hour drug store is an emergency.

"Where are you going?" asked my groggy wife. I told her. I got online and found the nearest 24-hour Rite Aid. A closer store would open at 8am, just 15 minutes later, but the 24-hour store was only 5 minutes away, and I couldn't imagine just sitting in pain.

I bought some drops for swimmer's ear. They were basically alcohol, which dries the water out of the ear. I used them until they burned my ear. It was still painful and plugged.

The lymph nodes on the right side of my neck were swollen and painful, and I kept swallowing something in the back of my throat like the postnasal drip from sinusitis. I had an infection of some kind.

But if you're like me, you fear the worst. My ear was ringing - surely there was a good chance I'd lose my hearing. What kind of doctor would I be with just one good ear? What important diagnoses would I miss? Or maybe it was a tumor. Of course it was cancer, and my career, not to mention my life, would be drastically shortened, a real tragedy- I would only be remembered for my potential.

I wrote myself an herbal formula. But ear problems have always seemed to me to be one of Chinese herbal medicine's weaknesses, so I didn't have much hope in them. I treated myself with acupuncture, using points both near the ear and also points traditionally indicated for ear problems that are located on the foot and hand. None of this seemed to make much difference.

I got some drops for earwax and tried those too. That didn't seem to help either, and it actually now felt like there was even more liquid in my ear.
My wife, Lynda, brought home the otoscope from our office (that thing your doctor uses to look in your ears) and took a look. "Oooohhh," she said, clearly enjoying the unfortunate medical mystery I had become. "It's really red and swollen, and you have a little area of pus there. The other ear here looks like swimmer's ear… Let me look for a picture of that on the Internet - I have to show you what that right side looks like!"

She ran and I hobbled to the computer, and we found a fairly similar picture (see the top of the article). "Yours has more pus," she said.

I had serous otitis media. If you thought the title of the article was a typo, you were wrong. It was a play on words… J Serous means fluid-filled, and the word looks a lot like serious. My pain sure felt serious.

"Go back to that mouth breather picture," I said. Someone in my Toastmasters group had called me a mouth breather a few days before, even though most of my life I have breathed with my mouth closed. I thought the kid in this photo looked hilarious. I probably shouldn't make fun of him, but humor is often irreverent…

Lynda did more than just study me- she made up for enjoying my misery by finding me an herbal formula. Wu & Fischer's Practical Therapeutics had several formulas for what they called, "mucopurulent ear." We decided I had the wind-heat pattern, and I made up the formula with TCM Formulas granules.

Its taste was a new kind of nasty. It's amazing to me that after more than five years of drinking these crazy herbs, there are still more awful combinations to taste. Don't get me wrong- I love herbs because they work, some of them do taste good, and I'm not a wimp about it, but some are truly horrible. Capsules of personalized formulas are the future of Chinese herbs.

The next day, I was at the office, and I told our chiropractor, John Schaefer, I had otitis media. I brought up antibiotics -I use them as a last resort, because I usually can cure colds, flu's, etc. with herbs, but I did have one notable infection a few years before that didn't respond after days of herbs but which antibiotics immediately cured. John shook his head. "It's self limiting," he said. "Stay away from the antibiotics." When I mentioned the herb formula, he said, "Yeah, take that." Then he said I should let him adjust me.

He palpated the bones and muscles in my neck while I lay on the chiropractic table. "Let me guess which side it's on," he said, "…the right?"

I nodded. "How'd you know?" I asked.

"The atlas is always shifted toward the side it's on," he said. The atlas is the first cervical (neck) vertebra.

"Huh," I said.

"See if that changes it," he said. He also suggested I massage my lymph nodes and gently push into my ear with the heel of my hand to create a little pressure and push the eardrum a bit. I supposed that might shake loose whatever was on the other side of it- I didn't really know what it would do, but so long as I didn't put too much pressure in there and damage the eardrum, it made me feel like I was doing something. As I did it over the next day or two, it did seem to help.

I kept taking the herbs and pushing air into my ear and even tried a naturopathic ear drop solution of grapefruit extract and tea tree oil, and after a couple of days, I suddenly realized my ear was no longer clogged. It had stopped ringing and hurting earlier, but the clogged feeling had persisted. Now it seemed all better.

I think it's amazing how I can suddenly forget about something that hurt so much it dominated my attention. It made me get out of bed before dawn, worried me I had a tumor or was losing my hearing, was the main focus of my life for days and yet it slips from notice and is forgotten until I suddenly realize I feel fine. I was going to die or at least have a serious sensory impairment for the rest of my life, and now it's just back to normal.

What cured it? Who knows? As John said, it was self-limiting, so maybe it would have gone away in the same time period on its own. Maybe the adjustment helped, maybe the lymph massage helped, maybe the eardrops, the pushing pressure into the ear, the Chinese herbs… I don't really know. Maybe all of it helped to some degree.

Regardless, like most medical problems, we can't ignore it, and we have to do something about it so we don't feel completely powerless, so at least I found a bunch of interesting things to do until I was healed.

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All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.

Copyright 1999-2074, Pulse Media International, Brian Carter, MSci, LAc, Editor