Some people experience fluttering sounds in the ears that come and go, while others may hear a continuous sound. These sounds can affect a person’s hearing.
This article will discuss the possible causes, symptoms, and treatments associated with fluttering in the ear.
Fluttering in the ear is not typically a serious condition. However, it can affect a person’s quality of life and their ability to hear clearly.
How serious it is depends on the cause.
People who experience fluttering in the ear may describe the sound as having helicopter blades or butterflies flapping their wings in their ear.
Diagnosing fluttering in the ear can be challenging for doctors, since guidelines for this do not yet exist. They will usually refer to published case reports to determine how to describe, diagnose, and treat fluttering in the ear.
The sections below list some possible causes of this symptom.
Tinnitus has many potential causes. Doctors characterize tinnitus as a perception of sound without an outside stimulus.
According to one 2016 study, this condition can affect between 8% and 25.3% of the United States population.
Some people may experience clicking or buzzing sounds. Others may describe the sounds as:
- drum-like thumping
People may hear the sounds in one or both ears, and the sounds may be:
Some causes of tinnitus include dysfunctions in the ear, such as tumors and Meniere’s disease. Other causes include hearing loss and exposure to loud noises.
Doctors can offer treatments to help people manage tinnitus. These will depend on its cause.
The following methods may reduce the intensity and burden of tinnitus symptoms:
- Behavioral therapy: This can help people reduce the internal attention to the sounds, help learn relaxation, and cope with the anxiety and depression that may come with experiencing tinnitus.
- Hearing aids: These may help if the sound is related to hearing loss.
- Medication: A doctor can prescribe antidepressants and antianxiety medication.
Researchers are exploring innovative techniques using electromagnetic energy and implants as potential cures.
Some researchers suggest that dysfunctional contractions of the muscles in the middle ear can cause fluttering sounds. Doctors call this rare condition middle ear myoclonus (MEM). MEM is a diagnosis of tinnitus.
To diagnose fluttering in the ear, a doctor will gather information about the person’s symptoms and perform long-time-based tympanometry.
Tympanometry examines the condition and function of the middle ear and the mobility of the eardrum.
Doctors sometimes describe MEM as idiopathic, which means that there is no identifiable cause. In other cases, a person may develop MEM after trauma, involuntary facial muscle spasms, or essential tremor of the soft palate.
Several medical and surgical therapies are available.
Some treatments cited in case reports include:
- botulinum toxin
Limited evidence supports the use of drug therapy for MEM.
Tympanectomy, a procedure that detaches the muscles from the middle ear, can provide relief for some people.
The eustachian tube connects the back of the nose to the middle ear. Its functions include:
- ventilating the middle ear
- keeping the air pressure across the middle ear equal to the outside pressure
- protecting the middle ear from germs
- enabling the middle ear to vibrate properly
Dysfunctions in the eustachian tube from swelling or an inability to open and close properly can cause:
- muffled hearing
- ringing in the ears
- reduced hearing
- a feeling of fullness in the ear
- problems with balance
Sometimes, people develop eustachian tube dysfunction following an upper respiratory tract infection or allergies. Tumors and injuries to the ear can also cause eustachian tube dysfunction.
Symptoms may resolve after a few days. Swallowing, yawning, chewing, and forced exhalation can all help equalize pressure across the middle ear and resolve the symptoms.
Sometimes, however, these symptoms may persist, and a person may wish to seek medical treatment.
Doctors may suggest one of the following nonsurgical approaches, but to date, limited evidence supports their use:
- nasal douching
Some surgical procedures may also relieve symptoms of eustachian tube dysfunction. The most common procedure is the insertion of a pressure-equalizing tube.
Patulous eustachian tube is a type of dysfunction wherein the tube stays open most of the time. Typically, the tube stays closed and only opens to equalize air pressure between the middle ear and the outside environment.
Some symptoms of patulous eustachian tube include:
- hearing one’s voice or breathing
- wave-like sounds
- a feeling of fullness in the ear
Doctors are unsure of the cause of patulous eustachian tube. In some cases, weight loss and pregnancy may predispose a person to this condition.
Some medications, such as birth control pills and diuretics, may also be contributing factors.
When symptoms occur, doctors may suggest reclining or lowering the head between the knees.
Drugs that may reduce symptoms include nasal sprays or drops containing:
- diluted hydrochloric acid
- benzyl alcohol
When these interventions are not sufficient to reduce symptoms, however, a person may require surgery.
Meniere’s disease is a chronic disorder of the vestibular system, which controls balance and equilibrium. People with Meniere’s disease have large amounts of fluid called endolymph collect in the inner ear.
Symptoms typically include:
- hearing loss
- ear pressure
Although the exact reason that people develop Meniere’s disease is unclear, health professionals have identified some potential predisposing factors, including:
- circulation problems
- viral infections
- autoimmune reactions
- possible genetic disorders
Treatment may include:
- making lifestyle changes
- taking medication
- having ear injections
- undergoing surgery
Hypothyroidism occurs when the body produces insufficient amounts of thyroid hormone.
Symptoms may include:
- unexpected weight gain
- intolerance to cold temperatures
- hearing loss
In one study, researchers evaluated the effect of thyroxin supplementation on Meniere’s disease symptoms in people with hypothyroidism, including:
- rotator sensation
- hearing loss
- ear fullness
After 12 weeks of treatment, participants reported significant reductions in these symptoms. The study only included a small number of participants, however, so further studies are necessary to confirm these findings.
Researchers suggest that having high blood pressure may predispose a person to hearing loss.
A lack of sufficient blood flow to the cochlea in the ear caused by blood pressure variability can affect hearing. Lowering the variability in blood pressure may help prevent hearing loss.
One investigation studied the positive association between tinnitus and high blood pressure. In their study, the researchers found that 44.4% of people with tinnitus also had high blood pressure.
On the other hand, they found that among participants with high blood pressure and tinnitus, the antihypertensive medications may have been responsible for the hearing difficulties.
The following drugs may be associated with tinnitus:
- angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors
- calcium channel blockers
Further studies are needed to confirm whether or not these drugs can lead to hearing loss over time.
Over time, earwax can accumulate and cause hearing impairment. Accumulation may occur from overproduction or a lack of self-cleaning.
Some of the symptoms of earwax impaction include:
- a feeling of plugged hearing
- partial hearing loss
- ringing or other noises in the ear
- a cough
- itchiness, odor, or discharge
When earwax accumulation causes hearing loss, removal will be necessary. Doctors suggest several methods to remove earwax. People should not attempt to remove earwax themselves.
- manual removal
- wax softeners
- ear irrigation
An article in the Indian Journal of Otolaryngology and Head & Neck Surgery describes a unique group of ear, nose, and throat disorders associated with pregnancy.
Ear changes during pregnancy may cause hearing impairment and vertigo.
On examination of the tympanic membrane, doctors may notice fluttering during respiration.
Doctors suggest that this change occurs due to eustachian tube dysfunction when there is inadequate weight gain in pregnancy.
Though fluttering in the ear tends to be more irritating than serious, a person may wish to seek medical attention to reduce or stop the sounds.
A person should see a doctor if they experience any symptoms of impaired hearing, high blood pressure, or hypothyroidism.
They may need to consult a specialist in conditions of the ear, known as an otolaryngologist, or an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
Some people may need to consult other specialists, such as an audiologist or a neurologist.
Fluttering in the ear is an annoying symptom that can affect a person’s quality of life. People may have difficulty hearing and focusing.
Doctors suggest that fluttering in the ear is a type of tinnitus called MEM, which is caused by jerky movements of the muscles in the middle ear.
Doctors need to individualize treatments and follow up with people who experience fluttering in the ear, since responses to treatments vary greatly from person to person.