A retracted eardrum occurs when a person's eardrum, or tympanic membrane, gets sucked or pulled into the space behind it. This happens when the pressure in this space, known as the middle ear, is too low. Infections usually cause this ear problem, but a quick change in outside air pressure can also cause the pressure inside of a person's ear to drop rapidly, possibly causing a retracted eardrum.
The tympanic membrane is more commonly referred to as the eardrum, and it is a very thin, flexible membrane. It is located between the outer ear canal and the middle ear. A thin tube, known as the eustachian tube, connects the middle ear to a person's nose and throat and helps maintain the proper pressure in the middle ear, relative to the outside pressure. When this tube is blocked, the pressure in a person's ear gets too low, creating a vacuum.
Infection is considered to be the main cause of a blocked eustachian tube. During many ear infections, fluid will build up in either the inner or middle ear. This fluid will sometimes block the opening to the eustachian tube in the ear. Air from the outside of the ear can not get into the middle ear, causing the negative pressure that can create a retracted eardrum. Although it can happen in adults, retracted eardrums occur more often in children, especially those who get recurring ear infections.
One of the main symptoms of this condition is increased hearing sensitivity. A person with a retracted eardrum often hears most sounds louder than they really are. Pain may also be present.
To diagnose a retracted eardrum, or any other ear infection, a doctor can look into a person's ear with an otoscope. By looking through this tool, he can see whether an eardrum is inflamed, bulged out, or retracted. Many times, a retracted eardrum is not considered very serious. Treatment may not be necessary, as the eustachian tube may become clear on its own.
In more serious cases, however, a physician may refer a patient to a otolaryngologist, which is a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat problems. These doctors may recommend that patients perform something called a valsalva maneuver. This maneuver can increase the pressure in the middle ear, which will often help the eardrum return to its natural position. To do this, a patient is instructed to hold his breath by plugging his nose and closing his mouth while trying to force air out at the same time. Sometimes decongestants are recommended to drain any mucus away from the eustachian tube.