An ear drum, or 'tympanic membrane' for those who like proper words, is the thin partition between the outer ear and the middle ear, sealing off the ear canal and is the bit which vibrates in response to sound waves hitting it and turns noise into something you can hear. Bursting or puncturing it is fairly common, if painful, and after many years of doing hearing tests around the country, these are some of the most cringe-worthy stories I have been told about how people burst their own ears...
1) The cotton bud and annoying house-mate
This may not quite be the most painful, see number 2 for that, but ranks as number one for me on the balance of both pain, and it has to be said, being a right numpty...
The young Brummie in question was in the bathroom and on this particular day decided that his ears needed a good decrapifying so whipped out the cotton buds (or Q Tips to our Yankee brethren). He was having a good delve around in his right ear and got distracted and took his hand away, leaving it sticking out of his ear. His housemate then chose that moment to shout something to him causing him to turn around towards the door to hear him better, and in the close confines of the bathroom forgot about the cotton bud sticking out of his ear. He whacked the end of the cotton bud on the wall, sending it plunging right down his ear, destroying the ear drum. Apparently it hurt a lot!
And the lesson is, well there are two lessons actually. First is that cotton buds are the tool of Satan and you do not need to go digging around in your ears with them, and the second is that if you do feel a need for some aural excavations, don't leave them sticking out of your ears!
2) The unfortunate welder
This one has to be far and away the most painful-sounding ear drum bursting I have come across... For those who are not familiar with welding, you get a lot of hot sparks of basically tiny superheated white-hot bits of metal flying up and around. That's what makes the impressive-looking sparks.
The chap in question was happily welding away and was not wearing hearing protection, which was perfectly fine as it had been established his average exposure over the day was below the 85dB(A) magic figure. As he welded he turned his head slightly and one of those white-hot blobs of molten metal got a perfect shot, right down his ear. Before it could cool the white-hot metal burned through the ear drum, fell through the middle ear and came to a rest against the cochlea, thankfully although still hot enough to burn it, it had cooled in these fractions of a second enough so that it didn't actually burn through.
One suspects more than a few naughty words may have been said and I can only begin to imagine the pain of a super-hot bit of metal burning its way down the ear and absolutely nothing can be done to stop it!
The take-away from this one is more serious: I would recommend all welders wear hearing protection whether it is noisy or not - block up those lug-holes!
3) Hair washing can be dangerous
One lady was washing her hair in the shower and, as she did every day, tipper her head to one side to let the water jets hit the side of her hair. Unfortunately on this occasion she lined up her ear canal perfectly with the water stream so a single jet shot straight down her ear and hit the ear drum. Ear drums are magic at converting sound into vibrations we can hear, but are not very strong so the water jet tore straight through it. She described the pain as 'pure agony'!
4) Don't let that sneeze out...
Have you ever wondered what could happen when you have to sneeze but circumstances dictate you hold it in, so do one of those mouth-closed quick-sneeze things? One lad who cam in for his hearing test told me he had a burst ear drum, so I had a look down the canal and indeed he had. In this case he had tried to keep a sneeze in a few days earlier... The middle ear inside the ear drum is connected to the back of your throat by a tiny tube. This is so you can equalise the pressure on the inside of the ear to match the outside so when you 'pop' your ears you are opening that tube to let air in or out. When this chap kept his sneeze in he sent a blast of over-pressured air up this tube into the middle ear, blowing out his ear drum with a single sneeze!
And an honourable mention goes to
One chap who didn't burst his ear drum through any fault of his own, he just didn't realise he had. He came in for his hearing test and I asked if he had experienced any problems with his ears. He replied that he had been suffering from ear ache for a few days away but 'it just suddenly went away yesterday'. I had a look down his ear and could see a nice perforation right across the ear drum. It seems the ache had been due to an infection in the middle ear, with the accumulation of pus causing the ear drum to swell out causing the pain, until it eventually 'went away' when the ear drum finally burst. Nice.
In most cases of perforations ear drums do heal themselves by the way and in more serious cases a simple surgery can fix it.