As long as they have two of them, most people don’t give ears a second thought. But a quarter inch is all the difference it takes between ears that blend in and those that stick out.
Ear surgery – also known as otoplasty – is the pinning or reshaping of ears. To pin ears, medical professionals reposition the ear and hold it in place with permanent sutures. During a reshaping procedure, additional cartilage is removed when the ear is pinned.
The procedure takes roughly two hours, but “two hours can be life changing,” says Dr. Melissa Doft, a board-certified plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstructive ear surgery and assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “Kids can do better in school, feel better socially, wear their hair in ponytails, and try out for sports. It really improves self confidence.”
Otoplasty accounted for 22,714 procedures performed by board-certified plastic surgeons in the United States last year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. To put that in perspective, for every person who gets their ears pinned back, ten breast augmentations are performed.
If you’re thinking about getting your ears done, keep these points in mind:
1. You’re never too old for otoplasty
According to Doft, the ideal time for otoplasty is when a child is in kindergarten, or around the age of 5 years old. By then, the child’s ear is 85% developed and other children haven’t begun to notice physical differences that can result in teasing, which generally happens in the second and third grade of elementary school.
If parents miss that window, children often end up pursuing this procedure between the ages of 12 and 16 years old. Doft also often treats young adults entering the workforce.
2. It’s nearly painless
The surgery is always performed under general anesthesia for pediatric patients. Some candidates get away with only local anesthesia when the issue is less severe. Doft says that recovery is not that painful, and that most of her pediatric patients only need simple pain relievers like Tylenol or Motrin.
Adults often require prescription pain medication for the first few days and typically take a few days off from work.
3. Your ears will never be perfectly identical
No two ears are made exactly the same. This means that, while the goal of the surgery is to make both ears similar to each other in size and projection, the contours will always be different and that achieving perfect symmetry is impossible.
4. Full recovery takes a couple months
Different surgeons have varying protocols, but generally speaking patients can expect to wear a bandage over their ears for three to five days after surgery. After the bandages come off, they will need to wear a headband day and night for a month, and only at night for another month.
5. Permanent sutures can come undone
Otoplasty has a relatively high recurrence rate of up to 20%. If the stitches come undone, ears may protrude or require a revision to fine tune the angle. Revisions are commonly performed in the doctor’s office under local anesthesia.
6. You may want to quit contact sports
Basketball, wrestling, soccer, or any sport where you might get elbowed in the head poses the risk for undoing ear stitches. If quitting these sports isn’t an option, you’ll need to be a little more careful and wear a headband while playing.
7. Your ear surgery probably won’t be covered by insurance
“We’ve written a lot of letters to insurance, but have had no luck,” says Doft. Although many deformities requiring surgical correction are covered by insurance, most insurance companies don’t cover otoplasty. The issue being corrected by otoplasty doesn’t affect your ability to hear.
8. Ear rejuvenation is becoming a thing
As you age, ear tissue thins and can look deflated. Not only does this change age your appearance, but it can affect women’s ability to wear heavy earrings. Dermal fillers can be injected to plump up earlobes.
Another by-product of aging is that earlobes get longer. To fix droopy lobes, a plastic surgeon can excise a portion of the lobe to make it smaller, giving it a more youthful shape.
9. It’s an art
Otoplasty is considered a niche surgery, and there aren’t that many plastic surgeons that choose to specialize in ear anatomy. Although an ear, nose and throat doctor may do this procedure — and be very good at it — it’s typically a cosmetic procedure. “You really want to go to somebody who has cosmetic training, and that’s usually a plastic surgeon,” says Doft. “It’s not hard to do an OK job, but it’s challenging to do a great job because every millimeter really matters.”
Her advice to prospective patients: if you’re considering getting your ears done, you should search for a doctor who is experienced in otoplasty.