What are grommets?
Grommets are tiny little tubes that are inserted into the eardrum. They allow air to enter the middle ear and drain the fluid to the back of the nose and throat.
A lot of kids, including my son, have grommets put in because of chronic ear infections and glue ear (a build up of fluid in the inner ear). My son actually lost 50% of his hearing from repeated ear infections and the resulting build up of fluid. His hearing is perfect now, thank goodness.
Grommets usually come out naturally within a year but they can stay in for longer with the right precautions and care for the ears. We have been lucky that our son’s grommets have stayed in place for well over two years! The longer they stay in, the better.
Ever since his operation, we take him every six months to see the ear nose and throat surgeon for a check up. We had an appointment yesterday and I learned something really interesting. I mentioned that we have been overseas several times in the last couple of years and flying doesn’t seem to bother my son at all. The doctor said that it was no surprise because when you have grommets in your ears, your ears don’t get blocked on take off and landing!
How the ear works
Sounds are tiny vibrations travelling through the air. When these vibrations reach the ear, they travel down the ear canal and hit the eardrum, making it vibrate. The eardrum is a thin membrane that creates a tight seal within the ear canal to protect the middle ear. Three tiny bones within the middle ear connect the eardrum to the cochlea. The cochlea is filled with liquid that carries the vibrations to thousands of tiny hair cells. Using the movement in the fluid the hair cells carry messages to the nerve connected to the brain. These messages then turn into what you hear. Incredible, huh?
Next to the cochlea is the Eustachian tube. It allows air to enter the middle ear and also drains fluid and mucous from the middle ear to the back of your nose and throat. It also helps to maintain equalised air pressure inside and outside of the middle ear.
What happens in a plane?
If you’ve ever flown, you’ve probably experienced the feeling of blocked ears and needing to “pop” them by swallowing, chewing or yawning on takeoff and landing. This is because as the plane begins to climb, the air pressure inside the inner ear becomes greater than the pressure outside the ear. This causes the eardrum to swell outward. When the plane starts to descend, the pressure inside the inner ear becomes lower than the air pressure outside the ear. This causes the eardrum to be sucked inward. In each of these cases, the Eustachian tube has flattened and you need to force air back into the inner ear. The eardrum stretching both out and in means that it cannot vibrate, which is why everything sounds muffled and can also cause pain.
How do grommets help?
With grommets in the eardrum, air can pass freely through the ear canal into the Eustachian tube. This means the pressure always remains equal on either side of the eardrum. In the words of our ENT, “the plane could be hurtling through the air towards the ground and he wouldn’t feel it in his ears”. Apparently flight crew rave about having grommets in their ears for work!
So there you go! I hope you have learned something new today.