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Middle ear myoclonus: Causes & treatment

Last update on Mar, 14, 2024

What’s that sound you’re hearing? If you’re suffering from middle ear myoclonus, noises may be coming from inside your body, not the outside world. Sounds like crackling, clicking or thumping within your ears might be a sign of middle ear myoclonus, also known as MEM. Learn more about the symptoms of this rare condition and discover common causes and approved medical treatments.

What is middle ear myoclonus (MEM)?

Middle ear myoclonus is a type of tinnitus, which is the perception of sound that doesn’t have an external source, often described as a ringing in the ears. This specific type of tinnitus is caused by a dysfunction in the movement of two muscles in the middle ear, the tensor tympani and the stapedius. When these two muscles begin contracting on their own, it can cause noises in the ear and sometimes it can even contribute to a feeling of dizziness. The good news is that middle ear myoclonus treatment is available and many patients experience relief after consulting with a doctor or hearing specialist.

What are symptoms of middle ear myoclonus?

If you hear crackling, clicking, fluttering or thumping noises in the ear, you might have middle ear myoclonus. The symptoms may arise for no apparent reason, or they could appear or intensify because of triggers like swallowing, speaking or changing your head position. Middle ear myoclonus symptoms can be so severe that they interfere with your ability to sleep.

What are the causes of middle ear myoclonus?

Curious about what could lead to this unusual condition? Learn more about some of the most common middle ear myoclonus causes:

Middle ear myoclonus causes like genetics might include a family history of the condition, which could make you more likely to experience it at some point in your life.

Your environment can lead to the onset of MEM. If you’ve had prolonged exposure to loud noises, your tensor tympani and stapedius muscles might become damaged, resulting in this form of tinnitus. Middle ear myoclonus and allergy symptoms are also linked, especially when the allergies are seasonal. Those who suffer from allergic rhinitis, sometimes known as “hay fever,” can have such severe symptoms that it causes or worsens tinnitus-type symptoms.

If you’re prone to muscle spasms in other areas of your body, you might experience symptoms related to MEM. Stapedius and tensor tympani muscle spasms can disrupt the function of the ossicles, which are three tiny bones in the middle ear. That disruption can lead to the sound and balance issues associated with MEM.

The muscles that open the Eustachian tubes, called the tensor veli palatini, are connected to the tensor tympani muscle in the middle ear. A pressure imbalance in the middle ear can occur when the tube doesn’t open correctly, and that Eustachian tube dysfunction can lead to symptoms of MEM.

Chronic middle ear infections can cause inflammation, which could eventually result in a MEM diagnosis.

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which is in your jaw, is physically very close to your middle ear. If you’re having problems with spasms in the muscles around that joint, the function of the middle ear muscles could also be adversely affected, resulting in MEM symptoms.

Be sure to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms, which can be exacerbated by certain medications. If you’re taking certain antibiotics, they may play a role. Other middle ear myoclonus causes include illicit drug use of stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines, which can have a negative impact on the function of the middle ear.
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Is middle ear myoclonus a symptom for other conditions?

MEM is a form of tinnitus, and its symptoms can lead to a diagnosis of other ear-related conditions. A number of health conditions are associated, including:

  • Atherosclerosis
  • Ear infection
  • Head or neck injuries
  • Hearing loss
  • Hypertension

How is middle ear myoclonus diagnosed?

Doctors typically arrive at a middle ear myoclonus diagnosis after extensive testing. These tests might include:

  • Clinical exams: Your doctor will check your general health and ask questions about your health history.
  • Otoscopic examinations: Looking and listening in your ears may help your doctor discover signs of MEM, especially if spasms are happening enough to be seen and heard.
  • Tympanometry: A tympanometry measures the movement of the eardrum, and it can also record reflexes from sound stimulation.
  • Electromyography (EMG): This test measures the conduction of electrical signals by nerves that cause muscles to contract and relax, and it can pinpoint the spasm points of muscles.
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Middle ear myoclonus treatment

Middle ear myoclonus treatment can include:

  • A surgical procedure known as tensor tympani tenotomy is one option for middle ear myoclonus treatment. It involves cutting the tensor tympani muscle to eliminate spasms.
  • Another procedure is a tympanotomy, which creates a hole in the eardrum to release pressure on the middle ear.
  • Removal of the stapes bone in the ear and the implant of a prothesis is another option. This procedure known as a stapedectomy. With MEM, the stapes bone can sometimes stick in place, which decreases the ability of sound to be carried across to the inner ear. Removing the stapes bone and implanting a prothesis can help with hearing function by opening that access.

Non-traditional middle ear myoclonus treatments are also available. Alternative and integrative therapies like acupuncture, biofeedback, yoga and meditation are also common middle ear myoclonus treatments. The focus on the free flow of breath and the awareness of energy within the body can offer relief from the spasms and inflammation of MEM.

Some people find relief from MEM and other forms of tinnitus in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of talk therapy helps you to develop skills and techniques to cope with the symptoms.

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Frequently asked questions about Middle Ear Myoclonus

For patients who have middle ear myoclonus, Botox injections can reduce the frequency of spasms and alleviate some symptoms.

The tensor tympani is a muscle located in the middle ear, which sits near the stapedius muscle. If you’re dealing with MEM, stapedius and tensor tympani muscle spasms are likely the reason you hear a clicking or fluttering sound in your ears.

If you’re experiencing middle ear myoclonus symptoms, especially if they’re affecting your sleep and everyday life, consider consulting with a doctor, who can recommend proper middle ear myoclonus treatment options.

If MEM is affecting your hearing, your primary care physician or ENT and they may then recommend a visit to a Miracle-Ear Hearing Center, where a hearing care professional can examine and determine if this could be associated with hearing loss. 
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