Systematic review of the limited evidence base for treatments of Eustachian tube dysfunction: a health technology assessment

Clin Otolaryngol. 2014 Feb;39(1):6-21. doi: 10.1111/coa.12220.


Background: The Health Technology Assessment programme commissioned a wide-ranging review of treatments for adult Eustachian tube dysfunction. Treatments range from advice and observation and pharmacological treatments to surgical options.

Objective: (i) To assess the evidence for interventions for adults with a clinical diagnosis of Eustachian tube dysfunction and (ii) to identify priorities for future research.

Type of review: Systematic review (PROSPERO registration CRD42012003035) adhering to PRISMA guidance.

Search: An extensive search of 15 databases including MEDLINE, EMBASE and CENTRAL (up to October 2012).

Evaluation method: Controlled and uncontrolled studies of interventions for adult Eustachian tube dysfunction were included. Because of insufficient data, the protocol was amended to also include controlled studies with mixed adult/child populations. Risk of bias was assessed. Narrative synthesis was employed due to high clinical heterogeneity.

Results: Interventions assessed were pharmacological treatments [two randomised controlled trials (RCTs), one controlled non-randomised trial (CCT), 159 patients]; mechanical pressure equalisation devices (one randomised controlled trial, one CCT, 48 patients); and surgery, including laser tuboplasty (seven case series, 192 patients), balloon dilatation (three case series, 103 patients), myringotomy without grommet insertion (two case series, 121 patients), transtubal steroids (one case series, 11 patients) and laser coagulation (one retrospective controlled study, 40 patients). All studies had high risk of bias except two pharmacological trials; one had low risk and one unclear risk. No evidence was found for many treatments. The single low risk of bias RCT (n = 91; 67% adults) showed no effect of nasal steroids and favoured placebo for improved middle ear function (RR 1.20, 95% CI 0.91-1.58) and symptoms (P = 0.07). Other studies showed improvements in middle ear function for mechanical devices, antihistamine/ephedrine and nasal decongestant, but they had significant methodological weaknesses including insufficient length of follow-up. None of the surgical studies were adequately controlled, and many reported high levels of co-intervention. Therefore, observed benefits for tuboplasty and balloon dilatation in symptoms, middle ear function or hearing could not be reliably attributed to the interventions assessed. There was variability in definitions of the condition.

Conclusion: Eustachian tube dysfunction is a poorly defined condition. Due to the limited and poor-quality evidence, it is inappropriate to make conclusions on the effectiveness of any intervention; the evidence base is insufficient to guide recommendations for a trial of any particular intervention. Consensus on diagnostic criteria for Eustachian tube dysfunction is required to inform inclusion criteria of future trials.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Ear Diseases / physiopathology
  • Ear Diseases / therapy*
  • Eustachian Tube* / physiopathology
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Technology Assessment, Biomedical*