Misunderstanding sinuses

The sinuses are four regions of cavities or spaces within the bone structure of the skull. These are the ‘frontal sinuses’ located above the eyes in the forehead; the ‘ethmoid sinuses’ between the eyes behind the nose; the ‘sphenoid sinuses’ deeper set back behind the nose; and the ‘maxillary sinuses’ located either side of the nose down on the cheeks. Together, all four are known as the ‘paranasal sinuses’; and like the other sense organs of eyes and ears, they are duplicated on each side of the face.

Sinus diagram

What I find interesting is that sinuses seem to be only partially understood by both scientists and the general public, and that this is happening simultaneously. In other words, just as the public are largely ignoring the sinuses, so science too is grappling with their meaning and function. On the whole, sinuses are not cherished and nurtured spaces. As individuals and as a society, we don’t ‘tune into’ them very well.

The most common refrain in the science literature on sinuses is that no-one really knows the main function of the sinuses. In addition, some medics and biologists believe the sinuses are “poorly designed”. This refers to their biological and evolutionary purpose in the light of the observations that sinuses appear to block easily and become infected.

Yet this reference to poor design is generated in an environment where we are uncomfortable with the slightest sinus problem and moreover where we have forgotten how to nurture and look after our faces, foreheads, energy and sinuses. I also think that many of us mistake normally functioning sinuses which shrink, swell, produce mucous and feel slightly stuffy now and then for something far more serious and truly infected – which should be seen as something very different.

Passing judgment on the sinuses is like judging teeth in a world without toothpaste or regular messages about cleaning teeth twice or three times a day. In such an uncaring environment, might equally say that teeth are poorly designed because they become infected and fall out while ignoring the high sugar of a modern diet. But because we generally look after our teeth and gums we don’t think biology has dealt us ‘poor design’. Our ambivalent attitude to sinuses is not the starting point to judge them.

It is because sinuses are able to make themselves apparent that I believe they are complex organs with particular functions related to our individual and social environment. And even more than that I believe we have active control over the way our sinuses behave in the long and short term.