Modern ear tubes were invented by CEENTA ENT doctor Beverly Armstrong, MD in 1954.
Ear Infections & Ear Tube Surgery
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Painful ear infections are a rite of passage for babies and children—by the age of five, nearly every child has experienced at least one.
CEENTA ENT doctor Robert Silver, MD, said 10-15 percent of pediatrician visits are due to ear infections, and 75 percent of children by age 3, and about 90 percent by the age of 5, have had an ear infection.
Ear infections are first treated with antibiotics and can often be treated by the child’s pediatrician. However, if a child has regular ear infections, they could need ear tubes.
An ear tube is a tiny cylinder made of plastic or vinyl that’s placed in the ear drum to allow air to ventilate.
A lot of people think the ear tubes drain the ear, but they don’t really drain as much as they ventilate the ear, Dr. Silver said. The Eustachian tube goes from the back of the nose to the space behind the eardrum and air is supposed to go up through that tube to ventilate the space behind the eardrum. If that tube is blocked for some reason, that means there’s a vacuum. The vacuum is what sucks in this fluid from around the ear and gets fluid behind the eardrum, which is where the infection comes from. A tube in the eardrum creates a small hole so air ventilates through that space behind the eardrum, eliminating the vacuum.
Before the current ear tube design, many attempts were made to find ways to drain the ear. CEENTA ENT doctor Mark Abrams, MD, said up until 1954, doctors would hold an adult or child down and put a needle through their eardrum to drain off the infection.
The problem with this treatment was the hole in the ear would heal up too quickly, and the ear infections would return. Patients might also experience complications including mastoiditis – which is an infection that can damage the mastoid bone and create pus-filled cysts – or even brain abscesses. But that doesn’t mean ear tubes weren’t tried before.
In the 1600s, when a tube was initially tried, they used a gold tube to drain the ear, Dr. Abrams said. When they were revisited in the 1800s, a rubber tube was used. However, it fell out of favor and never really caught on.
But in 1954, things changed, thanks to a Charlotte Eye Ear Nose and Throat Associates doctor named Beverly Armstrong. Born in 1917 in Sayre, PA, Dr. Armstrong was a graduate of the Syracuse University School of Medicine. After school, he joined the United States Army, serving first in Europe and then in the Pacific Theater. In 1948 he joined Charlotte Eye Ear Nose & Throat Associates, P.A. A medical innovator and advocate for new treatments, Dr. Armstrong is most famous for first considering the use of plastic tubes to treat recurrent ear infections. With this one idea, he changed ear care forever.
His design was great, Dr. Abrams said. It had a good bevel, which is the same angle as the eardrum, so it’d stay in there and doctors could see down the lumen when looking down a child’s ear.
Today, many children have reaped the benefit of Dr. Armstrong’s design. Half a million children get ear tubes every year, and physicians are still using Dr. Armstrong’s invention.
It’s a pretty simple concept that has stood the test of time, Dr. Silver said, and has really made a big difference in how doctors take care of these kids.