Have your ears ever felt blocked while flying on an airplane, climbing up a mountain, or scuba diving underwater? This sensation is a common response of the Eustachian tube following changes in atmospheric pressure.
The Eustachian tube is a narrow canal located deep inside of your ear behind the eardrum. The tube is about 3 to 4 centimeters long in adults and connects the middle ear space to the back of the nose (known as the nasopharynx). The primary function of the Eustachian tube is to equalize the pressure of the middle ear. Under normal circumstances, the tube is closed at rest and rapidly opens when yawning or swallowing. When the tube opens, it allows for an air exchange to occur between the middle ear and the back of the nose (where the pressure is close to the external environment).
Blockage of the Eustachian tube, or inability to open, causes the middle ear space to become isolated from the exterior environment. This condition is called Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD). When the tube fails to open, the lining of the middle ear may absorb the trapped air and create a negative pressure which pulls the eardrum inward. As a result, the patient may experience a blocked sensation, pain, pressure, or hearing loss. Long-term blockage of the Eustachian tube may result in the accumulation of fluid in the middle ear space. Younger children are more susceptible to middle ear fluid, ear infections, and Eustachian tube dysfunction because their eustachian tubes are shorter and more narrow, therefore causing decreased function. In addition, children often have enlarged adenoids in the back of the nose (nasopharynx), which can block the opening of the Eustachian tube and cause increased ear symptoms. Most children will eventually develop better eustachian tube function as they mature, but if eustachian tube dysfunction causes repeated ear infections, persistent ear fluid, or hearing loss related to ear fluid then certain types of surgical procedures can be considered, such as ear tube placement and/or removal of enlarged adenoids. Ear tube placement is shown to be a very safe and effective treatment for ear infections, ear fluid and hearing loss caused by eustachian tube dysfunction, and the ear tubes are designed to fall out on their own usually within 1 year.
There are a variety of ways to test the function and patency of the Eustachian tube. This includes a pneumatic otoscope (a small device that visualizes the ear canal and blows air towards the eardrum), a tympanogram (a test to evaluate eardrum motility), and a specialized hearing test. Also, a quick and painless in-office procedure called a nasopharyngoscopy allows physicians to evaluate the nose, sinuses and nasopharynx to insure that there is no blockage of Eustachian tube opening, usually caused by enlarged adenoids or nasal polyps.
Self-inflation of the ears is perhaps the easiest treatment for ETD. This can be accomplished by pinching the nose closed and “popping the ear”, also known as the Valsalva maneuver. ETD is often made worse by underlying allergies or sinus issues. Identification and treatment of allergic rhinitis and/or sinusitis may help reduce inflammation of the Eustachian tube and improve overall function. For patients with chronic ETD, treating underling sinus and allergy disease will often be helpful to reduce symptoms. For patients who will be flying and are prone to ETD, use of an oral decongestant (sudafed) or a nasal decongestant spray known as oxymetazoline (Afrin) should be considered in the short term. These medications are most effective if used during ascent and descent. Depending on severity of symptoms, some severe or chronic cases of ETD in adults may be treated by placement of an ear tube in the office setting, which can help equalize pressure in the middle ear.
Daryl Colden, MD FACS and Christopher Jayne, BS
Opinions expressed here are those of myself, Dr. Daryl Colden. They are not intended as medical advice and cannot substitute for the advice of your personal physician.