Congenital ear deformities are birth defects that affect the shape, function, and position of the ear. It is estimated that 5% of the population is born with an ear malformation.
Two of the most frequent conditions are microtia (small ears) and protruding ears.
Microtia occurs when the ears are underdeveloped and smaller than normal. Most children born with this condition have a normal inner ear, but the outer ear structures – including the opening – may be missing. This causes hearing difficulty, and makes it hard to determine directionality. It is most common in males, and is more likely to affect the right ear than the left. Surgery to correct the ears usually takes place in stages, but must wait until the ear has stopped growing (around the age of 6). The surgeon uses cartilage, typically from the ribcage, to construct a new outer ear structure. A total of two to four surgeries is usually required.
Protruding ears are those that stick out more than 2 cm from the side of the head. Prominent ears are more of a cosmetic concern than a medical issue, and may be corrected through the use of ear molding or surgery. Ear molding is a technique to mold deformed ears into a normal shape by manipulating the still-soft cartilage of an infant through the use of orthodontic molding materials. This procedure works best within the first 3-6 weeks; after this point, the ear cartilage stiffens and can no longer be molded. A procedure known as otoplasty can be used to surgically correct protruding ears. Again, it is preferable to wait until the ears have stopped growing before performing the operation. During an otoplasty, an incision is made behind the ears, and cartilage is used to create an anti-helical fold that serves to “pin” the ears back.