Acute otitis media (AOM), the most common form of childhood ear infections, is highly prevalent among children.  In fact, 80 percent of children have at least one ear infection by their 3rd birthday, and 40 percent will have six or more before age 7.  It accounts for nearly 30 million primary care visits (to the family practitioner or pediatrician) at a cost of $5 billion per year.

While there are a number of medical approaches to this condition, whether having tubes inserted or being given antibiotics, the American Pediatric Association says that the best approach is to watchfully wait it out, and let the problem resolve itself. As a parent, relative, or guardian, it’s hard not to want to do something! It’s important to understand, though, why ear infections happen. Why are they more common in children? Why are some children more prone to the infection than others?

Ear infections are most often caused by the retention of fluid in the middle ear.  Many times, this is caused by an inability of the Eustachian (or auditory) tube to properly drain fluids, which get trapped just behind the ear drum.  This structure normally allows air and liquid to drain from the ear, to the back of the throat.  The Eustachian tube is present in both children and adults, which begs the question, why do children develop ear infections much more often?

Pictured above are illustrations of a pediatric and an adult ear.  Notice that in the diagram of the child, the Eustachian tube sits more horizontally when compared to the more vertical orientation of the same structure in an adult.  This can lead to a greater chance of fluids becoming more stagnant, and unable to drain from tubes which may eventually cause an infection to develop.

Most commonly, acute ear infections are treated one of three ways.  Often an antibiotic may be prescribed to ward off the infection.  Prophylactic (or precautionary) use, in the past, has led to the development of resistant bacteria and has therefore brought about the second form of treatment. Observation, or waiting it out.  Finally, and especially if a child has persistent ear infections, a tympanostomy or “tubes” will be inserted into the ear drum to allow drainage from the middle ear to the outer ear.

There May be Another Way

There may be a structural solution for childhood ear infections.

Attaching to the skull and to the Eustachian tube is a small muscle called the tensor veli palatini.  When this muscle is functioning correctly, it allows the Eustachian tube to drain of fluid or air as you swallow or chew.  Think for a moment about the last time you flew on an airplane, or drove up a big hill.  Remember that feeling of pressure in your ear?  Likely you swallowed a couple of times or chewed a piece of gum for relief.  That was the tensor veli palatini at work.

This small muscle is controlled by the trigeminal nerve, which originates in the upper part of the spine.  If a shift of the spine occurs in this area, it can obstruct the proper functioning of this nerve, and therefore what it controls.  This can cause the tensor veli palatini to spasm or tighten around the Eustachian tube decreasing its ability to drain fluids away from the ear.

Shifts in the upper spine can often be the underlying culprit to persistent ear infections in children.

These shifts in the upper spine can also prevent the immune system from functioning at its best. Infants and children with these shifts may have lowered immunity, and be more susceptible to ear, or other, infections.

If your child suffers from recurring ear infections, there may be a structural solution.  A qualified structural chiropractor can carefully examine your child to determine if shifts of the spine are contributing to the problem.  These shifts are then gently guided back toward their normal position, removing the obstruction to the nerves, a properly functioning muscle, and a Eustachian tube that is able to drain properly.

At Keystone Chiropractic, both doctors have additional training through the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association (ICPA) to care for infants and children. If you have a friend, co-worker, or family member that has a child in their life with this issue – feel free to forward this information to them! Don’t hesitate to contact us TODAY to see if Structural Chiropractic may be the answer to your child’s ear infections.