Definition of Tube, otopharyngeal

Tube, otopharyngeal: The tube that runs from the middle ear to the pharynx, known also as the Eustachian tube.

The function of this tube is to protect, aerate and drain the middle ear (and mastoid). Occlusion of the Eustachian tube leads to the development of middle ear inflammation (otitis media) or middle fluid.

This tube is also called the auditory tube (and in medical Latin, the tuba acustica, tuba auditiva, and tuba auditoria).

The pharynx is subdivided into 3 parts: the upper part called the nasopharynx, the middle part called the oropharynx, and the lower part called the hypopharynx. The Eustachian tube opens into the nasopharynx.

The Eustachian tube measures only 17-18mm and is horizontal at birth. As it grows to double that length, it grows to be at an incline of 45 degrees in adulthood so that the tube's nasopharyngeal orifice (opening) in the adult is significantly below the tympanic orifice (the opening in the middle ear near the ear drum).

The shorter length and the straightness of the Eustachian tube in infancy does not protect the middle ear well, making for poor drainage of fluid from the middle ear, and most importantly, not allowing enough clean dry air to enter into the middle ear space to keep it clean and dry, predisposing infants and young children to middle ear infection. As a child grows, the increase in length and particularly the ability of the eustachian tube to open and close appropriately provides more effective protection to the middle ear by draining and aerating it as needed.

The Eustachian tube in the adult is opened by two muscles (the tensor palati and the levator palati) but the anatomy of children permits only one of these muscles (the tensor palati) to work. This is a particular problem for children born with cleft palate who have poor function of that muscle; they suffer from Eustachian tube and middle ear problems until the second muscle (the levator palati) begins to function.

The tube serves to adjust the pressure of the air within the middle ear to that of ambient air. It is harder to get air into the middle ear than get it out, which is why we have more trouble with our ears when a plane is descending than when it takes off.

The tube bears the name of Bartolommeo Eustachi, a 16th-century (c. 1500-1510 to 1574) Italian physician. In 1562 and 1563 he produced a remarkable series of treatises on the kidney, the teeth, and the ear. These were published in Opuscula anatomica (1564). The treatise on the kidney was the first work specifically dedicated to that organ. He was the first to study the teeth in any detail. The treatise on the ear, the auditory organ (De auditus organis), provided a correct account of the auditory tube that is still referred to by his name. In 1552 Eustachi prepared a series of 47 anatomical plates, which (although they were published long after his death) alone assured him a distinguished position in the history of anatomy. He placed anatomy in the service of medicine. With Vesalius and Fallopio (of Fallopian tube fame), Eustachi is often seen as one of the three heroes of human anatomy. (Historical information based on the Catalog of the Scientific Community of the 16th and 17th Centuries by Richard S Westfall for the Galileo Project.)

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