For the past two weeks, I’ve been writing and talking about almost anything but my new constant companion, a pulsing whoosh coming from my right ear. I am well acquainted with standard tinnitus because, long story short, that ear is profoundly disordered. This time it has a troubling variation. It sounds like I’m listening to a washing machine that runs in time with my pulse. This is otherwise known as pulsatile tinnitus.
The last thing I wanted to deal with after my back surgery was having any sort of problem with my ears. This morning I gave in and made an appointment with the ear doctor.
I have no idea which doctor I’ll be seeing, but I will be visiting the same practice that’s debrided my ear seven times over the past five years. My previous ENT up and retired, and I appreciated him because, to reference the great poet Walt Whitman, he hurt me no more than was necessary. The best one preceded the retiree, and I spotted his obituary in the paper last month. He was the one who gently broke the news to me that I could not be fitted for a hearing aid (at least for my right ear) because I don’t have enough mastoid bone left on that side to wear one. The other doctors would just avoid the subject.
I don’t even like the thought of getting another ear surgery. Notice that I jumped straight from tinnitus to surgery. I may as well admit that I’m a subclinical hypochondriac as well. I have enough of this problem to suspect it too easily in others. One semi-legendary battle I had with my sister during our teenage years involved me telling her that the neighborhood pharmacy had to backorder placebos in all kinds of shapes and sizes to accommodate her madness.
This was a vicious move on my part because none of her afflictions were imaginary. I was bursting at the seams with jealousy because someone had anatomized her symptoms into distinct diseases. Lord only knew what mess was brewing inside me. I worried it could be something apocalyptic, a fate on par with Ralphie’s vision of becoming a blind beggar in A Christmas Story.
Last year I read Jennifer Traig’s memoir Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria, and my abs felt strained by all the laughing at recognizing myself in its pages. I suppose I am one of many who worries about rare diseases while ignoring ordinary problems. Actually this is a highly efficient way of forestalling the health care one really needs. I spent three years worrying that my leg numbness could be a symptom of MS before I had my back checked out, which resulted in spinal fusion surgery that remedied that leg numbness completely.
I hate that I need to go the ear doctor, but I would guess that cancelling my appointment back in December created this whooshing mess. I was supposed to get my ear debrided again, and I called the ENT office and told them I felt like I couldn’t deal with it given my sciatica and impending back surgery at that time. It is likely that I have debris in there that’s led to a build up of fluid, which is putting enough pressure on the blood vessels that I can actually hear them at work. Pulsatile tinnitus differs from usual tinnitus in that it is not an artifact that the brain produces; the pulsing is a physical sound.
I will close with a bit of the martyrdom I feel when I think of some of my past ear treatments. Nothing in my life before or since exceeded the pain of the canal-wall down mastoidectomy I had twenty five years ago. Nothing has come close, not even 40+ hours of labor. Spinal fusion surgery was a speed bump in comparison. I am hoping an ear debridement is all that I need, but that feels about as pleasant as dental work without anesthesia.
I want this whooshing to stop more than I want to avoid that pain.