Henry Ford logoHardly any of us would have not enjoyed the sharp turns, ups and downs, and high speeds of today’s thrilling roller coasters. However physicians at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit are of the opinion that if not careful, individuals may damage their ears on these exciting rides. This may lead to a common ear injury known as ear barotrauma.

This case study appears to present the premier link between the force of acceleration in roller coasters and the ear injury. Reportedly barotrauma may take place when a relatively quick change in pressure between the external environment, the ear drum and the pressure in the middle ear space occurs. When extreme, it could also result in temporary hearing loss. Most commonly, it is known to cause dizziness, ear discomfort or pain, or a feeling of having the ears ‘pop’.

As the injury from a roller coaster may take place suddenly, the patients may find it difficult to equalize ear pressure by just yawning or chewing gum. Earlier ear barotraumas has been related to air travel and scuba diving. Most recently, it has also been found to seemingly be linked with the improvised explosive devices or IEDs used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As roller coasters continue to push the envelope of speed, otolaryngologists need to be aware of this new cause of barotrauma to the ear,” mentions study senior author Kathleen L. Yaremchuk, M.D., Chair, Department of Otolaryngology at Henry Ford Hospital. “Based on our research, we recommend that passengers remain facing forward for the duration of the ride to not let the full impact of acceleration hit the ear.”

To understand the roller coaster-induced ear barotraumas, the new Henry Ford study reveals to have been focused on a 24-year-old male. The individual claimed to have experienced pain and fullness in his right ear about 36 hours after riding a roller coaster at a local amusement park. As the acceleration of the ride increased, reportedly the patient’s head was turned to the left to speak with his girlfriend. This appeared to have led his right ear to sustain the complete impact of the forward throttle.

Seemingly, the roller coaster he was riding on attains a maximum speed of 120mph within 4 seconds. On examination by Henry Ford otolaryngologists, it was observed that though the patient’s left ear was normal, his right ear canal was swollen. It also appeared that the right ear drum was inflamed. Additional analysis by Dr. Yaremchuk and co-author Samer Al-khudari, M.D. indicated that the patient’s right ear was probably exposed to about 0.6 PSI when the roller coaster accelerated. Though that kind of a pressure may not be enough to perforate the ear drum, it could be sufficient to cause ear barotraumas.

The investigators suggest that external pressure or compression may lead to inflammation in the ear, causing augmented swelling and redness. For example it may take nearly 0.62 PSI to actually result in capillary closure in arterioles. As for this study, the patient’s symptoms are said to have improved with observation within 72 hours.

“This was an unusual situation, where the rider turned his head at just the right time to experience the full force of acceleration against his ear drum. It would be highly unlikely to do this multiple times in a row, but roller coaster riders should be aware of what they can do to prevent barotrauma from occurring,” shares Dr. Yaremchuk.

Typically for most barotraumas cases, otolaryngologists suggest patients are administered decongestants which may help relive symptoms. Also they are advised to avoid putting themselves in that kind of a situation until the swelling of the inner/middle ear has decreased.

The results from the study were to be presented April 30, 2010 at the Triologocial Society’s 113th Annual Meeting, part of the Combined Otolaryngology Spring Meetings in Las Vegas.