Barotrauma: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Overview

Barotrauma, also called decompression sickness, is a condition caused by increased air or water pressure, such as during airplane flights or scuba diving. Occasional ear barotrauma is common, especially in environments where the altitude changes. It is much more likely to happen to people who have colds, allergies or infections when they are flying.

People with barotrauma may have an injury to the ears, sinuses, or teeth. It can also affect the lungs, stomach, or intestines. While the condition isn’t harmful in some people, frequent cases may cause further complications. It is the biggest health problem for people who frequently fly and it can be especially painful for babies and young kids whose ears aren’t fully developed.

Causes

Ear barotrauma can occur when eustachian tubes become blocked or partially blocked. The eustachian tube is a thin canal connection between the middle ear and the “outside world”. The eustachian tube helps to restore equilibrium during changes in pressure. When the tube is blocked, symptoms will develop because the pressure in the ear is different than the pressure outside of the eardrum.

The most common cause of this condition is altitude changes. When an airplane is ascent or descent, people most often experience ear barotrauma because air pressure is higher close to the ground. Other situations that might cause ear barotrauma include scuba diving, hiking, and driving through mountains.

There are some risk factors, including:

  • History of barotrauma
  • Conditions such as allergies, colds, or active infections
  • Blast injuries
  • Use of a ventilator
  • Hyperbaric oxygen treatment

Symptoms

People
with barotrauma may feel an uncomfortable pressure inside the ear. In the early
stage, the symptoms may be from mild to moderate, which include:

  • popping in your ears when you swallow, yawn, or chew
  • dizziness
  • general ear discomfort
  • slight hearing loss or difficulty hearing
  • stuffiness or fullness in the ear

If
the condition is progressing without treatment or the case is particularly
severe, symptoms may intensify. Additional symptoms may include:

  • extreme ear pain
  • nosebleed
  • severe hearing loss or difficulty hearing
  • ear drum injury
  • nausea
  • difficult with bowel movement
  • bruising, red or purple spots on your skin, or a rash that itches

Once treated, the symptoms will go away. Hearing loss from ear barotrauma is always temporary and reversible.

Diagnosis

Ear
barotrauma is commonly detected through a physical exam. The doctor will take a
close look inside your middle ear with a lighted magnifying tool called an
otoscope to reveal changes in the eardrum. Besides, doctors will recommend any
of the following tests:

  • Ear tests. It is used to check your hearing or check for any damage to your ear.

  • X-rays. It can check for broken bones, or fluid or air in your sinuses, abdomen, or other areas of your body.

  • A CT or MRI scan. They may be used to look at your bones, lungs, stomach, intestines, or blood vessels. In some cases, a dye is injected to help the pictures show up better. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury.

Treatment

In
most cases with mild symptoms, there is no need for a medical treatment. There
are some self-care steps you can take for immediate relief:

  • yawning
  • chewing gum
  • practicing breathing exercises
  • taking antihistamines or decongestants
  • taking earplugs
  • cleaning ear canal to remove earwax and release pressure in your ears
  • hyperbaric oxygen therapy

In some
severe cases, the doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or a steroid to help in
cases of infection or inflammation. Doctors may also take transcutaneous
electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy. This uses an electrical current
placed on the skin near your ears. You may get therapy to help you learn not to
hear any ringing sounds. Besides, surgery may be needed to repair damage from
barotrauma. Another surgical option involves a tiny slit being made into the
eardrum to better allow pressure to equalize. This can also remove any fluid in
the middle ear. The slit will heal quickly so it may not be a permanent
solution.

Before taking any treatment options, ask your doctor for correct procedures.

Keywords: barotrauma; decompression sickness.

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How to Clear Eustachian Tubes?

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD): Treatments & Home Remedies

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What Does Sudden Hearing Loss Feel Like?

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