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Ear-Clearing Device May Replace Surgery and Drugs in Draining Middle-Ear Fluid

EarPopper being used on girl

Each year thousands of children undergo surgery or take expensive drugs to prevent hearing loss due to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear from ear infection and other causes. Now, researchers supported by NIDCD have found that a new device, called the EarPopper, is an effective way to drain the middle ear of fluid and restore hearing.

Developed by Shlomo Silman, Ph.D., professor of hearing sciences and audiology at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and otolaryngologist Daniel Arick, M.D., the device is a new take on an old theme known as the Politzer maneuver in which a doctor injects air up one nostril of a patient while the second nostril is pinched closed and the patient swallows. During the swallow, the air is diverted into the Eustachian tube, which ventilates the middle ear. The device relieves negative air pressure and allows any accumulated fluids to drain. The EarPopper differs from the Politzer design because it provides controlled airflow and pressure in a hand-held, battery-operated device that can be used at home.

In a four-year study that included approximately 100 children, ages 4-11, researchers found that 74 percent of the children had restored hearing with the device, when used twice a day for seven weeks, compared with 24 percent improvement in the control group, which received no treatment. When the study was extended to four more weeks in patients who did not improve, the total improvement for the study group was 85 percent.

Middle-ear fluid is one of the most common reasons children visit the doctor, second only to the common cold, resulting in more than 30 million doctor visits each year and adding $4 billion in medical costs. In recent years, concerns have increased that frequent use of antibiotics for common ear conditions could raise the possibility that children could develop drug-resistant strains of bacteria in subsequent illnesses. Also, many doctors and parents want to avoid the risks of surgery which sometimes fails. Each year more than 700,000 children undergo surgery to insert tubes in their ears at an estimated cost of approximately $2000 per procedure. Tubes can fall out after several months increasing the chances of a recurrence of otitis media with effusion (OME).

The researchers suggest that the EarPopper may eliminate the need for antibiotics or the placement of surgical tubes as treatments for OME, an accumulation of non-infected fluid in the middle ear.

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Last Updated Date: 
June 7, 2010