Winter is associated with the kidneys in Chinese medicine,and the kidneys are thought to open into the ears. Many ear maladies, including deafness and tinnitus, are rooted in kidney health. Age-related hearing loss is a good demonstration of this relationship: as people grow older and their kidney qi naturally wanes, they may gradually lose their hearing or be unable to hear certain frequencies.
Both deafness and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) are classified into two types of imbalances: excess and deficiency. With an excess syndrome, a process of pathological changes called an “upstirring of liver-gall bladder wind-fire”causes the obstruction of qi circulation in the channels that encircle the ear.A deficiency syndrome is from insufficient kidney qi which does not fully ascend to the ear. These two types of syndromes can be differentiated by the patient’s symptoms and the history of the condition, as well as the quality of their pulse.For instance, an irritable patient with sudden hearing loss and tinnitus presenting with a taut pulse, a flushed face, dry mouth, and possibly headache would signify an excess syndrome; while a patient who is dizzy and weak with a thread-like pulse would signify a deficiency case. The acupuncture points used to treat each of these syndromes would be (accordingly) to quell the excess, using points along the relevant meridians, or to shore up the kidney qi, using points on both the lower back and the front sides of the body. The needles would then be manipulated with a very specific technique appropriate to each syndrome.
Recent research has also been done on a condition called sudden onset sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL). A relatively rare idiopathic condition that usually affects one ear, SSHL is now thought to be caused by either a virus or trauma to the auditory nerve. (There is also conductive hearing loss which has more to do with the way sound is conducted through the middle ear; in this case, it usually involves damage to or malfunction of the ossicles, or small bones of the middle ear.) Recent research on acupuncture and SSHL treatments has shown promising results. SSHL standard treatment is oral steroids and/or steroid injections into the eardrum to reduce inflammation on the nerve. Patients who underwent standard steroid treatment along with acupuncture (a protocol consisting mainly of points around the outer ear and near the mastoid bone) had the best results for recovering some of their hearing.
Chronic tinnitus and deafness are difficult to treat, and anyone who develops sudden symptoms of either should immediately seek medical attention. Once other emergent conditions are ruled out, acupuncture may be a good option to use concurrently with western medicine for acute symptoms.