An eye-opening encounter with a deaf service staff at fast-food restaurant shaped Associate Professor Low Wong Kein Christopher’s decision to specialise in treating ear disorders more than 25 years ago. He recalled: “The service staff had to use sign language to communicate and he could not be understood by the customers, which resulted in misunderstanding and unhappiness. From then, I wanted to sub-specialise in treating ear disorders and aimed to make a difference.”
A/P Low has not looked back since. Today, he is a senior consultant at the Novena Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) – Head & Neck Surgery Specialist Centre in Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, where he tends to ear disorders in children and adults. A/P Low, who is an adjunct associate professor at the Duke-NUS Medical School, was the head of Singapore General Hospital’s ENT Department. A/P Low was also awarded a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree for his ear-related research work and is an accredited acupuncturist.
At the Novena ENT – Head & Neck Surgery Specialist Centre, some of the common disorders that A/P Low sees include ear infections and inner ear dysfunction, which result in tinnitus (hallucination of ringing or buzzing sounds), vertigo and hearing loss.
Dial down the volume
Hearing loss and tinnitus can be caused by the loss of cochlear hair cells in the inner ear.
Old age and frequent exposure to loud noises over prolonged periods can degenerate these cells, which are sensory receptors that convert sound vibrations into electrical signals. A/P Low cautioned: “Young people in Singapore are increasingly being exposed to leisure noise, from music devices and to visiting nightspots.”
Besides hearing capabilities, one’s sense of balance can also get affected, which leads to vertigo. This occurs as the vestibular system comprises the inner ear that is linked to parts of the brain that control one’s balance and eye movements. An example of an inner ear dysfunction is Meniere’s Disease, in which excessive fluid in the ear interferes with brain signals. A/P Low added that this condition can be aggravated by stress and excessive salt intake.
Another common ailment is ear infection which leads to ear discharge, pain and itching. In some cases, the external part of the ear is blocked by infected debris and pus, which impair the conduction of sound in the ear. A/P Low added: “Singapore’s tropical warm and humid weather is conducive for outer ear infections to occur, particularly by fungus.”
Treating ear disorders
The Novena ENT – Head & Neck Surgery Specialist Centre provides a broad spectrum of treatment options for ear disorders, from modern hearing aids, traditional Chinese acupuncture to cochlear implants. While cochlear implant surgery is complicated, its risks is low, according to A/P Low. One of the risks is injury to the facial nerve, which is embedded in the ear bone and holds up facial muscles. Having researched on the bony landmarks of Asian patients, he said: “With this knowledge and experience in this type of surgery, the risk of injury to the facial nerve is less than one percent.” On the other hand, external ear infections can be treated by the clearing of infected debris by an ENT specialist, applying creams and ear drops, or taking analgesics or painkillers.
Let nature takes its course
One of the biggest causes of ear blockage is the build-up of ear wax which can be made worse by using ear swabs and scrappers. Contrary to popular belief, these tools are often not effective in removing wax in ears. Instead, theycan push clumps of earwax deeper into the ear canal and prevent sounds from reaching the eardrums. Improper usage might also injure the eardrum and ear canal skin.
A/P Low advised that it is not necessary to remove ear wax on a routine basis for most people. He explained: “The ear has a conveyor belt-like mechanism that transports ear wax, which starts out as dead skin cells shed by the eardrum, from the inner to the outer parts of the ear canal. Earwax is produced naturally, so it does not make sense if nature does not have a way to get rid of it.”
For those who require medical assistance to remove earwax, the doctor may use a small vacuum cleaner and forceps under the microscope, or syringe the wax out with warm water. If the wax has hardened, it can be softened with eardrops before the wax is safely removed.
For more information, visit www.mountelizabeth.com.sg or 6898-6898 (Novena) to make an appointment with the specialists.
This article provides general information only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult medical or healthcare professionals for advice on health-related matters.