Children with a common ear condition could potentially avoid surgery with an innovative new kit which can be used at home.
Researchers tested a hearing kit usually marketed to cyclists and found that it helped children with hearing problems caused by glue ear.
Glue ear is a condition where the empty middle part of the ear canal fills up with fluid which can cause temporary hearing loss.
The condition mostly affects children under the age of eight.
While many cases clear up on their own, some children need to be fitted with grommets – which need to be inserted under general anaesthetic.
Bone conduction hearing aids also work well because they enable sound to vibrate through the skull directly to the cochlea.
Children benefited from the kit, helping them hear better at home and school, and in some cases improved their pronunciation, behaviour and listening anxiety
But the aids, which work well for glue ear because they bypass the eardrum and middle ear bones where the fluid or “glue” accumulates, are costly – with some aids costing up to £3,000.
Academics wanted to test whether cheaper “bone conduction headphones” marketed to cyclists for around £100 could also help those affected by glue ear.
The kits are promoted to cyclists to enable sounds from their mobile phones to be directed straight to the cochlea while sound from traffic is still accessible through the usual way of hearing through the ear canals.
The researchers found that the kit – which includes a headset, a microphone and a linked app – can be used by families so parents can monitor their children’s hearing at home.
Their new study, published in the journal BMJ Innovations, assessed the kits in a small number of families.
The parents of 26 children aged three to 11 who had been diagnosed with glue ear – most of whom were scheduled for grommet insertion during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis – were sent the kits and details of an app.
Progress was monitored over the subsequent three months.
Before the trial, the parents of 19 children reported their child’s hearing was “poor” or “very poor”.
None of the parents reported this while using the kit, with 24 reporting it as “normal” or only “slightly below normal”.
Twenty-three parents reported that their child “often” or “always” had difficulty hearing in a group before using the kit, compared with 22 out of 26 saying their child rarely or never had problems hearing in a group when using the kit.
By the end of 2020, none of the children had had a grommet inserted. Three families said they would continue to use the kit rather than have a grommet inserted.
The researchers from Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said that larger studies were needed to assess the kits.
They concluded: “Innovative use of bone conduction headphones, a microphone and the Hear Glue Ear app, sent through the post to patients, is a novel, new and effective approach to the management of glue ear, and its resulting hearing loss, especially when families have reduced access to audiology or Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) services, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The parents’ comments showed their children benefited from the kit, helping them hear better at home and school, and in some cases improved their pronunciation, behaviour and listening anxiety.”
According to the National Deaf Children’s Society, one in five pre-school children have glue ear at any one time, while eight out of 10 children will experience glue ear before the age of 10.