Why get tubes placed in your ears?
Myringotomy, or ear tube surgery, primarily is performed on children but also may be necessary for some adults.
Your pediatrician might recommend performing ear tube surgery if your child is younger than 2 and has recurring ear infections. This includes children who have between five and seven ear infections each year.
The surgery also can alleviate the impact that fluid in a child's ears can cause. For children between 2 and 4, fluid in their ears can affect their hearing. If the fluid is present for several months, it may affect a child's speech and language development. Using tubes to treat the fluid early on sometimes can prevent that.
Sometimes the Eustachian tube, the ear's natural ventilation, stops functioning or doesn't function as well as it should. This can cause complications and sometimes calls for ear tube surgery.
To begin the surgery, children are generally placed under general anesthesia. Some doctors might use a papoose board, or a restraint device, rather than general anesthesia. In adults, the procedure usually is performed in a clinical setting, using a topical numbing cream.
If your child is placed under anesthesia, he or she will go to sleep. Once your child is still, the doctor will look in the ears and introduce tiny tubes through the ear drum, or tympanic membrane, to allow air into the middle ear.
If this is your child's second set of tubes, your doctor might recommend also performing an adenoidectomy, removing the adenoid glands that sit behind the nose above the roof of the mouth. The back of the nose is where the ear ventilates, and the adenoids sit near that opening. If the adenoids grow too large, they can obstruct that opening and cause ear infections.
The procedure, without the adenoidectomy, lasts about 10 minutes. It's a similar surgery for adults.
Does it hurt?
If your child is awake, it could be uncomfortable. There shouldn't be much soreness afterward though, regardless.
Children might wake up from anesthesia frustrated with what happened, and they might cry or be confused about where they are. Significant discomfort is rare, though.
What are the risk factors?
The tubes can sometimes cause chronic infection. Sometimes the tube can fall inside the ear. If it's not causing problems, though, your doctor might recommend leaving it there. And sometimes the tube can become plugged and not work. In rare instances, a person might have abnormal anatomy, and when the doctor inserts the tube, it hits a vein or an artery that can cause bleeding.
What's the recovery time?
Your child should be able to return to day care or school fairly soon after surgery. Your child might be prescribed some ear drops or antibiotics to take for a few days after surgery.
Children shouldn't feel like there's something in their ears. Rather, it might feel like there's better ventilation.
What's the follow-up?
Your doctor might want to see your child a month after surgery to do a hearing test. Your child will probably have regular visits, maybe every six months, until the tubes fall out.
The amount of time the tubes lasts depends, in part, on what type of tubes are used. If they're short acting, they last between three months and about a year. In some cases, your doctor will use long-acting tubes, which last about three years. In some cases, they'll need to be removed by your child's ear, nose and throat specialist.
Some children will need a second ear tube surgery. Children who have Down syndrome, craniofacial abnormalities or immune system disorders might need the surgery more than twice.
Source: Dr. Paul Digoy, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at OU Children's Physicians; American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery; The National Institutes of Health.