About Eustachian Tube (Ear Tube) Dysfunction
The Eustachian tube, also known as the ear tube, connects the middle ear to the soft palate area at the back of the throat. Its main function is to equalize air pressure in the internal middle ear (where hearing takes place) with the outside air. Its secondary purpose is to help drain secretions away from the middle ear. When inflamed or blocked, the Eustachian tube cannot function properly, leading to symptoms of ear ache, a “full” feeling in the ear or pressure.
Eustachian tube dysfunction takes place when the tube cannot close to its normal position, which can allow secretions from the back of the nose to enter the middle ear cavity. The dysfunctional Eustachian tube that remains open is known as “patulous”, a rare condition. What more commonly occurs, is when the tube does not effectively regulate air pressure, causing sensations of clicking or popping noises, fullness in the ear, and moderate to intense pain in the ear. Sudden changes in air pressure, such as during lift-off of an airplane, can create intense pain.
If the function of the Eustachian tube worsens, the air pressure in the middle ear continues to fall and the sense of fullness increases making sounds seem muffled. A vacuum can occur, drawing fluid into the middle ear space, known as otitis media. If that fluid becomes infected, it is an ear infection.
Eustachian tube dysfunction can be caused by the common cold, pollution or smoking, sinusitis and/or allergies which cause inflammation including swelling within the ear tube. Adenoids at the back of the nose can obstruct the opening of the tube or harbor bacteria as well.
Swallowing and yawning are ways that our bodies naturally try to open the Eustachian tubes. Medical treatments may include the use of decongestants or antihistamines to control the inflammation or irritants that affect these tissues.
If Eustachian tube dysfunction becomes chronic, surgical treatment may be required. The goal of such surgery is to restore hearing, relieve the feeling of pressure in the ear, and reduce middle ear infections.
Myringotomy is when a tiny incision is made in the eardrum and fluid in the middle ear is carefully suctioned out. As the swelling in the tube reduces, the incision heals. Babies and young children who suffer from chronic ear infections may be referred to an ENT specialist. They insert a tiny plastic or metal tubes into the incision, allowing ventilation and air equalization. Children having pressure equalization tubes inserted are usually treated under a general anesthesia. Following the minimally-invasive surgery, water should be kept out of the ears; if it enters the ear canal, it can carry bacteria into the middle ear and lead to an ear infection.