Today’s Biology Lesson

I’m back. After the better part of a week writhing in a personal hell (where I roast in my shell*) I’m finally well enough to write again. And email people. And generally resume my life.

So, what was the cause of this break in transmission? A little disorder called labyrinthitis. My in-depth study of this medical phenomenon has lead me to a highly scientific conclusion. It sucks. Like really sucks. Given the choice of having labyrinthitis again, or being locked in a prison cell with Britany Spears for a week* I’d be heading down to the old jail house without a moment’s hesitation. It’s that absolutely horrible.

So, what exactly is it? Glad you asked…

OK, the ear works like this. Sound waves go moving through the air, then get gathered by the excitingly moulded contours of your outer ear, and channeled into the ear canal (that place you’re not meant to stick cotton-buds/q-tips despite the fact everyone does). Here they impact on a thin piece of skin stretched across the canal, called the tympanic membrane, or (for the scientifically uninitiated) ear drum. The vibrations of the ear drum cause a tiny bone, known (for obvious reasons) as the hammer, to bang against another tiny bone called (again obviously) the anvil, which is connected to a third tiny bone known as the stirrup (not quite so obvious, but it actually looks like one you see). The stirrup is connected to a thin membrane at the end of the cochlea, which is a fluid filled organ that looks like a snail shell, and is coloured bright blue in all the cheerful anatomical charts you get to look at while sitting in the Ear/Nose/Throat Specialist’s waiting room (it’s actual colour remains a matter for conjecture).

This rather complicated arrangement acts to transfer the vibrations from the air to the fluid inside the cochlea. These vibrations travel through the fluid, and (here’s the clever bit) depending on their frequency and amplitude (pitch and loudness to all you unscientific folk) penetrate to different depths within the spiral. Lining the inside of the cochlea are millions (OK, it could be merely thousands, it’s been a while since I’ve checked Grays Anatomy) of little hairs, each one connected to a nerve. As the vibration passes these hairs, they vibrate, stimulating the nerves and sending signals to the brain, which interprets the different patterns of signals as different kinds of sounds.

Now, all of this doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do with labyrinthitis, I just can’t pass over the opportunity to blather on about science. Anyway the bit we’re interested in are a few extra loops (called the vestibular system, ooh fancy) that poke out of the top of the cochlea. Nature in her infinite economy elected not to let a good fluid filled snail shaped thing go to waste (after all, how many of those are there available the body?) and added these extraneous loops to act as a sort of spirit level for the body. The movement of the fluid within them tells your brain which way is up and which way is down. In addition they also take care of telling you which way you’re moving, how fast you’re moving, and exactly what forces are working on your body mass (or at least head) at any given moment.

Now this is a very elegant and efficient system, except when some kind of infection causes these loops to become inflamed. In this case your entire sense of balance, movement and momentum go totally doolally, and you start stumbling around uncontrollably and throwing up, the conflict between what your vestibular system and your eyes are telling you causing severe seasickness.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last week. Stumbling around and throwing up. Fun.

It’s one of those strange medical coincidences, up there on a par with the humerus* giving you a “funny*” feeling when you bump it, that labyrinthitis (hence called as the cochlea plus the vestibular system are called the labyrinth) leaves you completely disoriented and confused, as if actually lost in the famous maze of Daedalus. It’s only a small compensation that don’t have to worry about stumbling over a minotaur*, although your mood does become similarly monstrous over a few days of putting up with the disorder. About the only Ariadne’s thread available is antibiotics.

Not that the first doctor I saw actually gave me any. He just proscribed some sea sickness tablets and told me it’d get better eventually, which wasn’t much of a comfort. Happily* though the infection then spread to my middle ear, and the second doctor (after pronouncing that my left ear looked “crap”) gave me a whole bunch of big white tablets, which seem to be clearing everything up quite nicely. I’m still dizzy, but nowhere near as much, and I was actually able to not only cook a proper meal last night, but eat it as well, which given that I’ve been living on irregular gulps of packet soups, chocolate cookies and vanilla ice-cream* in between bouts of nausea for the last week, was a major relief.

All this illness has of course exempted me from Jury Duty. I did go in on Monday, and got to the stage where they sit you down in a court room and draw names out of a ballot box to see who’s going to be on the jury, however my name wasn’t drawn out. Just as well really, all things considered. The case didn’t seem all that interesting really anyway, just someone accused of insurance fraud. I was meant to go back in on Thursday, but was too busy throwing up. I’ve got to get my medical certificate off to the Justice Department today, otherwise they’ll probably fine me.

Anyway I’m getting dizzy again, so I’m going to go and sit quietly. Yes, that seems like a good idea.

* Aw, man, I can’t think straight till I get those peanuts.

* Being locked up with Britany Spears for a week may not seem like too dire a punishment at first glance (nudge nudge wink wink say no more), but keep in mind that whole virginity thing, and the fact that with nothing much to do in a prison cell she’d probably be tempted to pass the time by singing. Now you see the true horror of the situation.

* Funny bone. Get it?

* ie: Extremely painful. Medical students are all sadists.

* Or for that matter David Bowie.

* Relatively speaking 🙂

* All I could actually stomach would you believe? Things are much better now, but I still can’t eat cheese.

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