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If you’re prone to blocked ears, chances are you’ve had your ears syringed before. That’s the traditional method used to remove ear wax blockages, and for a long time it was considered the best option for professional ear cleaning.
But unfortunately, complications from syringing are increasingly common. In fact, one in five cases of medical negligence brought against GPs are related to ear syringing gone wrong.
If you’re a GP, that’s a concerning statistic. And if you’re a patient with blocked ears, it’s even more worrying.
The good news is, there’s now an alternative. Thanks to advances in technology, microsuction is an increasingly popular solution to the discomfort of ear wax build-up.
Knowledge is power, so here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision about how best to get your ears clear and comfortable again.
Imagine you wake up with a wax-clogged ear.
Make a GP appointment, and they’ll probably ask you to use wax-dissolving ear drops (or olive oil) at home for a few days before coming in. That’s necessary to ensure the best success rate with the syringe.
They should also check your medical history to check you’re not part of an at-risk group. (If you’ve got diabetes, chronic infections or are immuno-compromised, or if you’ve had previous ear surgery or a previously perforated eardrum, your GP will advise that it’s best not to go ahead with the procedure.)
Once it’s time for your appointment, your GP will use a large syringe or irrigator to aim a pressurised jet of warm water into your ear. It shouldn’t hurt, but might feel slightly uncomfortable as the water flushes the wax away.
The alternative option? Make an appointment with a microsuction specialist.
At your appointment, you’ll see a qualified hearing specialist who’s completed dedicated training in aural microsuction. They’ll use a special device called an otoscope to see inside your ear canal – you’ll get a glimpse too, if you’re interested.
Then they’ll insert the small microsuction tip into your ear canal, checking it’s safely placed at every stage.
‘Think of it as a tiny vacuum cleaner,’ explains earLAB founder and microsuction specialist Lisa Wong. ‘It’s gentle and precise and more effective than syringing, and most patients find the experience totally comfortable. In fact, even children can have microsuction as long as they can keep their head still.’
You’ll hear a ‘whoosh’ as the suction removes the wax – and then that’s it. Your ears are clear – easy.
If safety matters to you, then you’ll want to know which method of wax removal is the safest.
Not surprisingly, the clear winner is microsuction.
1 in 1000 patients experience major complications following syringing, explains Dr Skye Poulton writing in Australian Family Physician. This is because syringing can damage the delicate skin of the ear canal and eardrum (also known as the tympanic membrane). Patients can cough during the procedure and experience tinnitus (ringing ears) and vertigo.
And because syringing involves water, it can leave moisture inside the ear canal, sometimes pooled behind deeply lodged wax, and lead to an ear infection – potentially in up to 3% of patients.
Microsuction, being a dry method of wax removal, avoid these dangers related to moisture. It uses suction rather than pressure, so it’s gentler. It’s also more precise, with the practitioner able to maintain visibility of the ear canal during the entire procedure.
The short story? As Lisa Wong says, ‘The gift of hearing is something unique, it help us connect to the world’