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Diagnosis & Treatment of Ear Conditions

At Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, our audiologists and neurotologists provide expert medical and surgical treatment for a wide range of ear, hearing, balance and cranial nerve conditions. Some of the conditions our specialists diagnose and treat include:

  • Acoustic neuroma—also called vestibular schwannoma—is a slow-growing, benign tumor that develops on the balance nerve (vestibular nerve) supplying the balance center of the inner ear.

    The most common symptoms in patients with acoustic neuromas are slow and progressive hearing loss and tinnitus in just one ear. Other symptoms can include vertigo and balance issues or a sudden change in hearing in one ear. In rare cases, facial numbness or facial spasms can occur. Learn more

  • Bell’s palsy is one of the most common causes of sudden weakness or paralysis of the facial nerve, which usually causes one side of the face to droop. It occurs in 20 to 30 people out of every 100,000 and occurs five times more often in people with diabetes.

    Drooping or weakness in the face—whether sudden or gradual—can also be a sign of stroke and should be evaluated as soon as possible. Learn more

  • Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) is the most common cause of vertigo—the sudden sensation of spinning. Sudden movements of the head typically trigger this vertigo, often occurring while rolling over in bed, lying down or standing up quickly, or standing and looking up. The vertigo typically lasts less than a minute, and most people feel completely normal in between episodes. Learn more

  • The eardrum—also called the tympanic membrane—is a thin piece of skin that separates the middle ear from the ear canal. It is part of the sound conduction pathway leading sound into the inner ear.

    In rare cases, the skin from the eardrum grows underneath the eardrum into the middle ear, forming a cyst-like structure full of dead skin. This is called a cholesteatoma. A cholesteatoma can be found in the middle ear or mastoid bone.

    In rare cases, a cholesteatoma can extend into the brain through the thin bone separating the ear and the base of the skull. Learn more

  • Ear infections are one of the most common illnesses in children 2 years and under. They tend to become less common in childhood and usually resolve by early adolescence. But they can also be a problem for adults.

    Ear infections often occur in combination with a cold or viral upper respiratory illness. Swelling in the sinuses and nasal cavity causes abnormal pressure or ventilation, and fluid can build up behind the eardrum and become infected.      

    Usually, the fluid goes away by itself after the infection is cleared up.

    If fluid in the middle ear remains and a secondary bacterial infection occurs, it is called acute otitis media. When an acute ear infection resolves and then recurs repeatedly, it is called recurrent acute otitis media. Learn more

  • Earwax—also called cerumen—is a yellowish-brown substance produced by small glands in the ear canal. Earwax is generally scant and is naturally expelled during activities such as showering or bathing, exercising, and moving the jaw during chewing or talking. Daily ear cleaning is not necessary and should be avoided.

    When wax accumulation becomes excessive, however, it can cause discomfort or hearing loss. If this happens, PLEASE DO NOT USE COTTON SWABS OR OTHER FOREIGN BODIES in the ear canal. 

    Inserting any object into the ear can cause serious damage. Instead, make an appointment for a professional to clean your ears using a microscope and proper instruments. Learn more

  • Labyrinthitis is a disease of the inner ear. It is associated with an acute onset of hearing loss and severe vertigo—a sensation that the room is spinning or that the head is spinning inside a still room.

    Labyrinthitis is thought to be due to viral infections that cause inflammation in the inner ear, but no cause has been proven.

    In rare cases, labyrinthitis can also be due to a bacterial infection of the inner ear, but this is often associated with other more severe diseases such as meningitis. Learn more

  • Meniere’s disease (also called Meniere’s syndrome) is a disorder of the inner ear. It most commonly affects adults ages 40 to 70 but in rare cases can affect younger children and older adults.

    The two main symptoms of Meniere’s disease are hearing loss and bouts of vertigo that last 20 minutes or more. Other symptoms may include inner ear pressure and a ringing or buzzing in the ear. Learn more

  • Otosclerosis is a disorder that can cause progressive hearing loss. It is caused by an abnormality in the metabolism of calcium in the bony junction between the middle ear bones and the inner ear bones.

    Three tiny bones in the ear vibrate to keep sound waves moving into the inner ear. The stapes is the third bone in the chain, and the one directly connected to the inner ear. If the stapes becomes fixed and stops vibrating, it can lead to hearing loss in one or both ears. Learn more

  • Most forms of hearing loss occur gradually over months to years. But in about five to 20 out of every 100,000 people, a neurological hearing loss can occur within hours or days. Sudden hearing loss is most common in people 40 to 60 years old but can occur at any age.

    Many people delay seeking specialty care for sudden hearing loss because the problem is believed to be something else—earwax buildup, an ear or sinus infection, or the result of allergies or other illnesses.

    Sudden sensorineural hearing loss is a medical emergency. An immediate evaluation by an ear specialist is crucial because early intervention can improve the chance of recovery. Learn more

  • Superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome (SCDS) is a rare disorder that causes a constellation of symptoms that include hearing loss, dizziness and ringing in the ears. It typically occurs in people ages 30 to 70 and affects women more often than men.

  • Swimmer’s ear (also called acute otitis externa) is typically caused by a bacterial infection of the outer ear canal. Occasionally, it is caused by a yeast infection.

    Swimmer’s ear often occurs in people who spend a lot of time in chlorinated water. Chlorine changes the pH balance of the ear canal, causing normal bacteria in the ear canal to grow uncontrollably.

    But you don’t have to be a swimmer to get it. Other causes include:

    • Damage to the skin of the ear canal—often caused by chronic use of cotton swabs
    • Water that gets trapped in the ear canal during showers
    • Hearing aid use
    • Living in humid climates
    • Radiation treatments to the neck and skull

    Learn more

  • Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. It is one of the most common health conditions in the United States and one of the most common reasons adults seek medical attention.

    Tinnitus symptoms are most often described as “ringing in the ears” but can also seem like buzzing, whooshing, hissing, whistling, pulsing, or the sound of a cricket clicking. Learn more

Find a specialist near you

If you have questions about hearing loss or other ear-related problems, one of our specialists in audiology or otology can help you find answers.