The ear is formed from three parts:
Congenital hearing loss may be conductive, due to defects in the ossicles or tympanic membrane. Sensorineural loss arises due to problems with the cochlea (internal ear), auditory nerves or brain cortex. Central (sensory) hearing loss results from damage to the auditory nerve itself, or the brain pathways that lead to the nerve. Central hearing loss is rare in infants and children.
Minor anomalies are common. There is a wide variation in size and shape of the external ear in the normal population. Minor variations may indicate chromosomal syndromes (eg trisomy 18 or 21) or maternal drug usage (eg isotretinoin).
Microtia is a small/malformed pinna, and anotia is the total absence of the pinna. These can occur as an isolated anomaly or with other anomalies, commonly facial clefts and cardiac defects. Microtia/anotia can cause conductive hearing loss if there is atresia of the external acoustic meatus (often genetic causes) or middle ear problems. The condition can be on one side or bilateral (10%). It can be associated with chromosomal syndromes, maternal drugs (eg thalidomide) and single gene conditions (Treacher Collins syndrome). Associations include advanced maternal age, low maternal education attainment, lack of folic acid, insulin dependent diabetes, high parity, high altitude areas, urban residence and male infant sex.
Congenital choleasteatoma is a keratin filled cyst found on the inside of a normal tympanic membrane. It can cause conductive hearing loss. The treatment is surgical removal even if this impairs hearing as it is a recurrent destructive process within the middle ear.
Congenital anomalies of the inner ear can cause sensorineural hearing loss. Most of these are caused by abnormalities of the hair cells in the cochlea and are genetic in origin.
Development starts early in the fourth week of gestation. The inner ear develops separately from that of the middle and inner ear.
Ear defects and deafness are associated with a wider variety of genetic and environmental factors. More than 40 genes have been identified that cause deafness. This may be due to isolated gene defects or as part of a wider syndrome.
Detection of external ear anomalies is made through physical examination.
Newborn neonatal screening for bilateral hearing loss was introduced in Wales in 2003. CARIS data show how the proportion of cases diagnosed in the first month of life has increased following introduction of the screening programme from 4% to 29% of cases of bilateral hearing loss.
A key aim is early detection and management of hearing loss in order to try and maintain development of communication skills in affected babies and young children. This involves multi agency working in partnership with the child and family and includes:
Treatment for external ear anomalies may not be required. For severe microtia or anotia, prostheses can be used from about the age of 3 years and surgery from age 7to8 years. Middle ear anomalies may also be amenable to surgical treatment, depending on the nature and extent of the defect.