Balloons That Unblock Ears
A simple, non-invasive procedure is now used by surgeons to help those suffering from painful, blocked ears
Common colds, nasal allergies and sinus infections are among the many causes that can lead to the blocking of the Eustachian tube, which links the middle ear to the nasopharynx and serves to equalise pressure in the middle ear. Everyone experiences blocked ears to some degree especially during flights or on high altitude, but most people are able to relieve the pressure by themselves with a yawn-like motion. Those with Eustachian tube dysfunction have their ears blocked persistently, and may even experience hearing loss or pain.
A day procedure
Dr Terry Hung, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist at Matilda International Hospital (MIH), explained, “The Eustachian tube comprises a bony part and a non-bony, cartilaginous part, and it is usually the latter that is blocked due to the build-up of tissue fluid within the tube lining. The new procedure involves inserting a very fine, guided catheter through the nostril, finding the blockage and then inflating a balloon at the tip with water.
After holding it there for two minutes, the catheter is retrieved and the blockage is relieved. The entire process takes around 10 minutes to complete but since general anaesthesia is required, the patient is recommended to stay in the hospital for at least four hours before going home.
The new Eustachian tube balloon dilatation procedure will allow patients to swim and enjoy water sport activities a couple of weeks after the procedure.
Medication as first line of treatment
Doctors will only recommend the procedure if medication or nasal spray fails to treat the blocked ears. An alternative, more conventional procedure also works to treat this dysfunction by implanting an artificial ear tube through the ear drum to carry out the decompressing function. However, this is more invasive and may permanently leave a hole in the ear drum.
Balloon dilatation of the Eustachian tube was first described in medical literature in 2010 and is now used in European countries such as Finland, Germany and the UK. It has recently been launched in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
Surgical options for patients
Given its simplicity and efficiency, the procedure is noted for the short-term benefits and positive outcomes. However, there is one surgical aspect to be considered. “The internal carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain can be found right next to the Eustachian tube, so there had been some discussions as to whether the catheter may injure this artery in the process. But this is all theoretical and there has not been any reported cases,” said Dr Hung.
He added, “Both procedures have their pros and cons. Balloon dilatation is simple and non-invasive but there is a higher equipment cost. Ear tube replacement, while invasive, has a longer track record with a much lower equipment cost. Patients can decide which treatment best suits their needs upon consultation with the doctor.”