Cyclists’ hearing tool could help children with common ear condition

Hearing kits used for cyclists could help children with glue ear  (Reuters)
Hearing kits used for cyclists could help children with glue ear (Reuters)

Children with a life-changing ear condition could avoid surgery by using an innovative new kit available to use at home.

Researchers testing a hearing kit usually marketed to cyclists found that it helped children with hearing issues caused by glue ear.

Glue ear, known as adhesive otitis, is when the middle part of your ear fills up with fluid which can cause temporary hearing loss.

The condition is most common in children under eight years old, but in many cases clears up on its own. Some children, however, have to be fitted with a grommet, a surgically implanted device that drains fluid and keeps the eardrum open.

Bone conduction hearing aids are one of the most successful options for glue ear because they simply allow sound to be conducted through the skull to the cochlea (inner ear) and do not require surgical implantation.

They are costly, however, with some aids costing up to £3,000.

Cheaper “bone conduction headphones” were tested by researchers to assess whether they could help children with glue ear. The earphones are based on £100 kits marketed to cyclists which 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 study, published in BMJ Innovations, found that the kit - which includes a headset, a microphone and a linked app - can be successfully used by families to monitor their child’s hearing at home.

Some 26 parents with children aged three to 11 diagnosed with glue ear took part in the study with progress mapped over three months.

According to the results, before using the kit 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 a grommet inserted. Three families said they would continue to use the kit rather than use a grommet.

Researchers at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: “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.”

They added that parents comments showed children benefited from the kit at both home and school and in some cases there was an improvement to “pronunciation, behaviour and listening anxiety.”

Researchers are calling for larger studies to assess the effectiveness of the kits.

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