How putting a balloon up your nose eases tinnitus
Tinnitus is the ringing or buzzing in the ears
A balloon that’s inserted through the nose and into the ear could help tackle hearing problems, including tinnitus.
Once it’s in the ear, the balloon is inflated with salt water which helps widen and unblock the Eustachian tube — the narrow passage which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose.
The tube sits just behind the ear drum and is normally closed, but opens during swallowing, yawning and chewing to equalise air pressure on both sides of the drum.
This helps maintain normal hearing. However, it’s quite common for the Eustachian tube, which is just 1in long, to become blocked with mucus as a result of a cold or other upper respiratory tract infection.
As a result, the air pressure on the inner side of the ear drum can’t be equalised, causing pain and the temporary deafness people often complain about when they have a cold.
Usually the problem resolves itself, but in some cases, symptoms persist, leading to further infection and damage to the ear drum and delicate hearing mechanisms in the middle ear.
This, in turn, can trigger conditions such as tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears).
Treatments for Eustachian tube dysfunction include decongestants, oral and nasal steroids, and antihistamines.
A tympanostomy tube, or grommet, can also be inserted through a small incision in the ear drum which allows air and mucus to pass through the Eustachian tube.
In a new planned trial at Southmead NHS Hospital, Bristol, around 200 patients suffering from long-term Eustachian tube dysfunction will have the deflated balloon treatment in one ear (the balloon is inserted up the nose and then steered into the Eustachian tube under general anaesthetic).
The balloon will be inflated for two minutes and then removed.
Around 200 patients suffering from long-term Eustachian tube dysfunction will have the deflated balloon treatment in one ear
The patient will then have a grommet inserted into the other ear and be monitored for up to two years.
The treatment, which is being evaluated by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), has previously been tested in a small trial with 11 adults at the University of Tampere Medical School, Finland.
This found that in all cases the tube widened and symptoms were reduced.
‘At the moment, persistent Eustachian tube dysfunction is commonly treated by inserting a tympanostomy in the ear drum,’ explains Adenike Oluwasanmi, an Ear Nose and Throat associate specialist at Southmead Hospital, Bristol.
Risks associated with grommets include persistent infection and permanent ear drum perforation. Some patients also have to have the surgery repeated.
‘Dilating the Eustachian tube should improve its function and improve middle ear function,’ says Dr Oluwasanmi.
An eardrum with a ventilation grommet in situ
In another development, scientists have discovered that a tablet widely used for flatulence could help clear Eustacian ear blockages.
Chewable simethicone tablets are an over-the-counter compound that helps reduce painful abdominal cramps caused by excess wind by breaking up gas bubbles in the gut.
Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh say early research suggests that the drug — which is an anti-foaming agent — could also help clear a Eustacian tube blockage by breaking up the bubbles that form in thick, clogging mucus in the ear.
This can clear the opening, allowing air to pass between the nose and middle ear, and equalising pressure either sides of the ear drum. Once this pressure is equalised, sounds can be then be transmitted.
The U.S. trial will involve 40 adults with abnormal middle-ear pressure caused by a cold.
Half the group will take the active product while the rest will take a placebo.
The pressure in their ears will be measured half an hour after the treatment has taken place.