What is the Eardrum?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The eardrum is a portion of the anatomy of the ear that is designed to separate the external parts of the ear from the middle ear. It protects the middle air from damage and it also serves another function, conducting sound in the middle ear to enable hearing. Eardrums start appearing very early in fetal development and errors during development can lead to hearing loss.

Eardrums begin to form early in fetal development.
Eardrums begin to form early in fetal development.

This structure is also known as the tympanic membrane. It consists of a very thin layer of skin that stretches across the ear canal. Roughly oval shaped, the eardrum is slightly concave from the outside. The tissue is stretched on a ring of bone that keeps it taut. A narrow opening in the ring near the top of the eardrum allows part of the tissue to be less tight, creating a small area known as the pars flaccida.

The eardrum is the connection between the inner and outer ear.
The eardrum is the connection between the inner and outer ear.

When sound is present in the environment, it creates vibrations in the ear. These vibrations cause the tightly stretched skin on the eardrum to vibrate as well, transmitting the movement to small bones inside the ear known as the auditory ossicles. This allows the brain to interact with sound waves and interpret them as sounds. Auditory processing is very rapid, providing instant feedback when people interact with things in their environments that produce noises.

When sound enters the ear, it is first processed by the eardrum.
When sound enters the ear, it is first processed by the eardrum.

Sometimes, a perforation can appear in the eardrum. This may be congenital in nature or caused by an infection that eats into the tissue. It is also possible for traumas like head injuries to result in perforations of the ear drum. This causes a condition known as conductive hearing loss, where people cannot hear clearly because their ears are no longer able to conduct the vibrations of the sound waves.

Perforations can heal naturally in some cases. Like other tissues in the body, the eardrum is designed to regenerate. During the healing phases it is very important to keep the ear canal dry to avoid middle ear injuries, and the patient may need to take medications to treat infections. If a perforation does not heal or grows worse, options like surgery may be considered for treatment to rebuild the eardrum so the patient will be able to hear again.

Symptoms of a perforation can include pain in the ear, thick discharges, tinnitus, and difficulty hearing. People who notice hearing problems after experiencing a trauma to the head should consult a physician for treatment.

The eardrum can be damaged by trauma caused by loud noises or listening to loud music.
The eardrum can be damaged by trauma caused by loud noises or listening to loud music.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have a hole in my eardrum. It feels like there is ringing in my ear at all times. What do I do?


For a month I have been suffering from vertigo when I wake up early in the morning. Could you suggest a specialist doctor?


My brother's eardrum was perforated in a car wreck. He had to have surgery to repair it, because the damage was extreme.

He said that he could not hear very well while the emergency technicians were asking him questions. He also said that his ear was ringing loudly, and it hurt like an earache. The doctor guessed that something had happened to his eardrum because he was having so much trouble understanding everyone.

After his eardrum healed, he regained his hearing. It took a little longer for the ringing to disappear entirely, but it eventually did.


Eardrum perforations hurt like nothing else can. When my ears itch inside, I often shove a cotton swab down in there to scratch them and clean out the wax.

On more than one occasion, I have hit my eardrum with the swab. Instantly, I feel a pain that seems to radiate through my ear canal. There is no way to stop it, and it has to subside on its own. In the meantime, I just roll around on the floor in pain.

My parents tell me that the simple solution is just not to stick cotton swabs into my ears. I tell them that the itching is so severe at times that I cannot bear it, and a cotton swab seems safer than a bobby pin, which my uncle uses. He has severely perforated his eardrum before, yet he continues to do this.


@Mutsy -Poor thing, I know that eardrum infections are really painful. What bothers me is when my eardrums start popping while flying on an airplane. It is really bad when the plane takes off and when it is landing.

I try to chew gum in order to counter the popping and it usually works, but sometimes the popping continues even when I get off the plane. I also try to swallow and stick my fingers in my ear and shake my ears a little to get it to stop.


My daughter suffers from eardrum pain whenever she goes swimming and does not wear ear plugs. She always gets eardrum infections because her doctor said that a canal leading to the ear drum is too small and fluid always leaks in which causes the area to get infected.

The doctor said that when my daughter becomes an adult the problem should have corrected itself. At least in the meantime I found a temporary solution that works.

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