Researchers at the University of North Carolina and RTI International have found that children who have tubes implanted in their ears to remove fluid pressure fare just as well in the long run as kids who wait out the symptoms under a doctor's care.
The small tubes are surgically implanted in a child’s eardrums to relieve the condition, called otitis media with effusion. Nearly 670,000 kids undergo the procedure in America each year, making it one of the most common surgeries for children.
Dr. Michael Steiner of UNC was an author of the report. He says the procedure is generally simple and safe:
One problem of the fluid in the ears for children is that it affects their hearing. And since children are at important developmental stages in terms of learning to talk and understanding the world around them, there's always been a lot of concern about hearing loss caused by otitis media with effusion.
But Steiner says kids with the condition who don't get tubes in their ears develop just as well under a doctor's care as the kids who do:
What we more confidently know now is that placement of (pressure equalization) tubes or other surgeries to correct otitis media with effusion do work well in the short term, but there is not strong evidence that they improve long-term speech and language outcomes. And that may, and should cause, physicians and parents to question how frequently tubes need to be placed.
Steiner says physicians and parents should avoid invasive procedures whenever possible:
All surgeries have risks, and we have increasing concerns about using general anesthesia in young children and the effect that it might have on brain development and cognitive ability later. So avoiding that whenever possible is a good idea, and generally avoiding any invasive kind of procedure if it's not necessary.
Steiner adds that the surgery can also leave scarring on the ear drum, which might affect hearing long-term.