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Impact of Evolution on the Eustachian Tube


  • Charles D. Bluestone MD

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Otolaryngology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
    • Dr. Charles D. Bluestone, Department of Pediatric Otolaryngology, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, 3705 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
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  • Presented in part at the 9th International Symposium on Recent Advances in Otitis Media, St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, U.S.A., June 4, 2007.


I posit that humans appear to be the only species that develops otitis media. If animals in the wild had developed middle-ear disease to any significant degree, they would have been selected out during evolution because they would not have survived their predators given the associated hearing loss. Why do humans have otitis media? Evolution has had a significant impact. It is well known that humans are born 12 months too early, which is the result of adaptations to bipedalism and our big brain that, over time, resulted in a relatively small female pelvic outlet compared with nonhuman primates. As a consequence of too early a birth, not only is our immune system immature, but the eustachian tube is too short and floppy in the first year of life. But why is otitis media still common in older individuals? What other adaptation is uniquely human? We developed speech that was associated with descent of the larynx and hyoid bone, which, along with a decrease in prognathism (i.e., facial flattening), resulted in a change in palatal morphology as compared with other primates. Comparative anatomic and physiologic studies have demonstrated significant differences between humans and monkeys, especially in the muscles of the eustachian tube. Paradoxic constriction, as apposed to dilation, on swallowing is a common tubal dysfunction in humans and certain monkey models with chronic middle-ear effusion. My hypothesis is that chronic otitis media with effusion in patients with tubal constriction is a consequence of adaptation for speech and that, most likely, the levator veli palatini muscle is the cause.