Head and neck surgeons at UT Southwestern have now performed more than 200 minimally invasive surgeries using endoscopic techniques to replace the microscopes traditionally used for middle ear surgeries. The minimally invasive techniques can be used to correct problems such as holes in the eardrums, cholesteatoma (skin cysts that form in the ear), and rare tumors that can form in the ear. The advantages of using endoscopes over the traditional behind-the-ear approach include improved visualization for surgeons, no need for an incision behind the ear, and less pain after surgery.
“Traditionally, we have done ear surgery by making an incision behind the ear using surgical microscopes. We’ve been doing that since the ’50s and ’60s, but more recently there’s been a push to do more minimally invasive surgery,” said Dr. Brandon Isaacson, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology. “What we do is operate through a natural orifice, through an external auditory canal. The potential benefits include faster recovery time, typically less pain because you don’t have to make a big incision behind the ear and pull the ear forward, and far superior views for the surgeon with the endoscope than anything else that we have with microscopes.”
The technique, called transcanal endoscopic ear surgery or TEES, uses a camera attached to an endoscope. This surgical aid consists of a narrow, rigid metal tube filled with fiber optic cables that transmit light and images to a TV screen. TEES allows the surgeon to see around corners and only requires a small incision inside the ear canal, he said.
“You can basically use it for issues related to the eardrum, ear canal, or middle ear. You can fix holes or perforations in the eardrum. You can use it for tumors in the ear, called glomus tympanicum, and for cholesteatoma. TEES also can be used for people who have conductive hearing loss, which usually results from problems with one or more of the little ear bones (malleus, incus, and stapes) that connect the eardrum to the inner ear. All these can be addressed with the endoscope.”
Minimally invasive surgery has expanded broadly across various surgical specialties, but adoption for middle ear surgery has been slower, and does require some additional training.
“There’s definitely a learning curve. You can use the same endoscopes you use for sinus surgery, although there is a specialized one that’s shorter than a typical-sized endoscope,” said Dr. Isaacson, who trained in Toronto and is now teaching UT Southwestern residents the specialized techniques. “We try to push boundaries and like to try to stay ahead of the curve in adopting new techniques.”
UT Southwestern has become one of the leading centers to use the minimally invasive techniques, along with Vanderbilt University and Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear hospital, said Dr. Isaacson, a member of the International Working Group on Endoscopic Ear Surgery (IWGEES), which is helping to pioneer the technique internationally.
The 1st World Congress on Endoscopic Ear Surgery was held in April in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The technique will be highlighted during the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) in Dallas.
“The advantage of the surgery is the visualization you get. You can look around corners. With the microscope, you only get line of sight, and there are lots of different crevasses within the middle ear space that are really difficult to see with the microscope. But you can see pretty easily with an endoscope,” said Dr. Isaacson, who is involved in several studies designed to evaluate and compare effectiveness of the endoscopic technique against traditional methods. “I’m not saying it’s going to replace the microscope, but it’s another tool that we have to address these types of issues for our patients.”
Pioneering, minimally invasive surgical techniques are an expanding part of UT Southwestern’s Comprehensive Skull Base Program, which specializes in the removal of tumors involving the ear, brain, and lateral skull base through innovative lateral skull base approaches using the latest in image guidance and microsurgical techniques with the goal of preservation of normal function. Skull base disorders involving the bony shelf separating the brain from the eye sockets, nasal cavities, ear canals, and upper neck that involve major nerves, blood vessels, and other structures cover more than two dozen types of skull base-related conditions, including cerebrospinal fluid leaks, sinus tumors, glomus tumors, meningioma, neurofibromatosis, pituitary adenoma, sarcoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and acoustic neuroma. UT Southwestern’s Comprehensive Skull Base Program brings together physicians from otorhinolaryngology (head and neck surgery), neurosurgery, neuro-ophthalmology, neuro-oncology, radiation oncology, interventional radiology, and pathology to coordinate individualized treatment plans for patients. UT Southwestern is home to one of the world’s premier neurological surgery centers with a state-of-the-art intensive care unit. Care also is coordinated with the renowned Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, the first and only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in North Texas, and one of just 45 in the nation.
Eardrum repair surgeries are typically done to correct a tear or other damage to the eardrum, called the tympanic membrane, a thin piece of tissue that separates the outer and middle ear. The surgeries typically involve making an incision behind the ear or inside the ear canal, cleaning or removing infected tissue, patching the perforation with new tissue − called tympanoplasty or myringoplasty – or repairing tiny bones in the middle ear, called ossiculoplasty.
A ruptured eardrum can result from ear infections, extremely loud noise close to the ear, rapid change in ear pressure – such as occur when flying or scuba diving – or punctures from objects in the ear. Symptoms can include pain in the ear, noise or buzzing, hearing loss, or dizziness. Dr. Isaacson suggests contacting a specialist when hearing problems or infections become persistent, interfere with lifestyle, or when hearing is worse in one ear. Specialists, often referred to as ear-nose-throat specialists (ENTs), also are known as otolaryngologists.
Hearing problems have been on the rise since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 37 million adults in the United States reported trouble hearing in 2006, the latest figures available from the CDC. Problems were reported more frequently among men than women. Hearing troubles rise substantially with age, with more than 11 percent of those older than 65 reporting hearing problems, according to the CDC.
About UT Southwestern Medical Center
UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. The faculty of more than 2,700 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to about 92,000 hospitalized patients and oversee approximately 2.1 million outpatient visits a year.
Media Contact: Remekca Owens