Otic barotrauma is ear pain or damage to the tympanic membrane caused by rapid changes in pressure.
To maintain equal pressure on both sides of the tympanic membrane (TM), gas must move freely between the nasopharynx and middle ear. When a URI, allergy, or other mechanism interferes with eustachian tube functioning during changes in environmental pressure, the pressure in the middle ear either falls below ambient pressure, causing retraction of the TM, or rises above it, causing bulging. With negative middle ear pressure, a transudate of fluid may form in the middle ear. As the pressure differential increases, ecchymosis and subepithelial hematoma may develop in the mucous membrane of the middle ear and the TM. A very large pressure differential may cause bleeding into the middle ear, TM rupture, and the development of a perilymph fistula through the oval or round window.
Symptoms are severe pain, conductive hearing loss, and, if there is a perilymph fistula, sensorineural hearing loss and/or vertigo. Symptoms usually worsen during rapid increase in external air pressures, such as a rapid ascent (eg, during scuba diving—see Injury During Diving or Work in Compressed Air: Ear and Sinus Barotrauma) or descent (eg, during air travel). Sensorineural hearing loss or vertigo during descent suggests the development of a perilymph fistula; the same symptoms during ascent from a deep-sea dive can additionally suggest an air bubble formation in the inner ear.
Routine self-treatment of pain associated with changing pressure in an aircraft includes chewing gum, attempting to yawn and swallow, blowing against closed nostrils, and using decongestant nasal sprays.
If hearing loss is sensorineural and vertigo is present, a perilymph fistula is suspected and middle ear exploration to close a fistula is considered. If pain is severe and hearing loss is conductive, myringotomy is helpful.
A person with nasal congestion due to URI or allergies should avoid flying and diving. When these activities are unavoidable, a topical nasal vasoconstrictor (eg, phenylephrine 0.25 to 1.0%) is applied 30 to 60 min before descent or ascent.
Last full review/revision December 2012 by Richard T. Miyamoto, MD
Content last modified January 2013