Chronic Ear Infections: A TCM Approach

By: Dr. Peter Wood (Vancouver Atopic Acupuncturist)

Chronic ear infections are a common problem among infants and toddlers. Otitis media, or middle-ear infection, is more common in infants of 7 years of age and less. This is due to a delayed development in the structure of the Eustachian tube of the inner ear, combined with a comparatively lower resistance to viruses and bacteria than in adults. An increased incidence of recurrent ear infections occurs in those whose tubes are further malformed or slower to develop than the norm.
The pain associated with otitis media is due to the increased pressure put on the eardrum by blocked fluids and secreted pus. Ruptured eardrums ensue and are the catalyst for severe pain and often hearing loss.

Conventional treatment for the condition includes, once topical remedies have proven ineffective, local or systemic antibiotics, the downside of which is a vicious cycle of a compromised immune system, leading to the proclivity of further infection. The condition becomes chronic when the infections come in a rapid succession such that the eardrum is unable to heal itself. In these cases, it is indicated that a tympanostomy tube, or ‘grommet’ be inserted into the ear to provide better drainage for the built up fluids. This more invasive approach, while necessary in these cases, is itself the cause of short-term pain on insertion and eventually on removal.

Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a holistic approach to treating otitis media. Herbal remedies are prescribed according to the specific presentation, but commonly contain herbs to stop the production of ‘Dampness’, that becomes ‘Phlegm’ when it reaches the ear. The other side of the treatment entails strengthening the immune system to make it more resistant to invasion by harmful viruses and bacteria. In this way, the treatment is said to treat both the ‘Branch’ – the symptoms – and the ‘Root’ – the cause of the symptoms.

An example of one such case I saw in my practice is of a boy who already had the grommets inserted into his ear but was still contracting many colds, which would still lead to some ear discomfort. It was his mother’s hope that a new procedure replacing the old tubes with new ones could be avoided. After several months of the boy’s courageous ingestion of herbal tea (we never said it would taste good), we have reached the date set to perform the grommet procedure. It has been postponed because the patient has not had pressure in the ear in over a month and has contracted relatively few colds, lasting for only a short time, never leading to an ear infection.

As in any condition, it is always my recommendation to consider a holistic approach before jumping into often more invasive conventional approaches. This could help avoid much pain and suffering now and into your child’s future. Of course, severity of the condition will ultimately dictate whether delaying such procedures is possible, and the ENT specialist should be the one to make that decision with you.

From my experience, if your child is on the vicious-cycle of antibiotics to infections, this is a good indication that it is the appropriate time to add TCM to the treatment protocol.