The head and neck contain a number of crucial sensory organs, nerve pathways, muscle groups, blood vessels and other systems that contribute to human health. Aside from the eyes and brain, which have their own medical specialties, conditions affecting the head, neck and throat are an otolaryngologist's area of expertise. Also known as ear-nose-throat doctors, or ENTs, otolaryngologists treat everything from chronic sinus infections to life-threatening cancers. Otologists are ear specialists, within the field of otolaryngology.
Otolaryngologists are doctors who treat conditions of the ears, nose, sinuses and throat. They're both physicians and surgeons and can choose to treat a given condition surgically or non-surgically, whichever is more appropriate for the patient. They treat allergies that cause sinus congestion, as well as other conditions of the nose and sinuses. They remove tumors from the throat and neck, and in some cases the skull or brain. They perform plastic and reconstructive surgery, treat balance and hearing problems in the ears, and help patients who have difficulty swallowing.
Otologists are also otolaryngologists, but they're specialists in treatment of the ears and their related systems. This includes repairing physical conditions that cause hearing loss, such as fused bones within the ear or perforated eardrums, and inner-ear problems that affect balance. Otologists can also remove tumors located near the skull base, behind the jaw and in sinus cavities. These procedures require extensive facial reconstruction afterward, but make it possible to treat patients whose cancers would otherwise be inoperable.
General otolaryngologists can treat many of the same conditions as otologists, but otologists' specialized training enables them to treat patients with more complex and challenging conditions. They're also more skilled in neurotology, the treatment of nerve pathway disorders that can cause hearing loss, dizziness and nausea. General otolaryngologists don't have the focused expertise of otologists, but offer their patients a broader range of services. Private and hospital-based practices often provide both general otolaryngology and otology services.
Otolaryngologists begin their careers with a four-year undergraduate degree, as other doctors do, then go on earn their doctoral degree through four more years in an osteopathic or medical college. After graduation, aspiring otolaryngologists must complete a five-year surgical residency. This gives them the opportunity to sharpen their clinical and surgical skills in a team environment with more-experienced practitioners. After completing their residency, newly trained otolaryngologists can become board-certified by passing two exams, one written and one oral. Otologists must spend another two years in a specialized training fellowship, learning the advanced skills needed. Otologists must pass an additional set of board certification exams after completing their fellowship.