( Ear Barotrauma, Barotitis Media, Ear Popping, Ear Pressure, Airplane Ear; Sinus Barotrauma, Aerosinusitis, Barosinusitis; Pulmonary Barotrauma, Pulmonary Overpressurization Syndrome)
Barotrauma is the pain or discomfort that is felt with a difference in air or water pressure between the outside environment and the inside of the body.
Any part of the body that contains air can be sensitive to these pressures:
- Ear (most common)—affecting structures in the middle ear
- Sinus—air-filled facial sinuses surround the bones in the skull
- Pulmonary (most critical)—lungs
Normally air moves easily between outside and inside of the ear, sinuses, and lungs, helping to maintain a balance of pressure. Imbalances may be created with:
- Sudden or severe changes in surrounding pressure
- Blockages in the body's air cavities
The imbalance of pressure causes the air inside your body to shrink or swell. This is what can cause pain and damage.
Activities that can expose someone to significant pressure changes include:
- Airplane travel
- Ascending (going up to the surface) without exhaling freely
- Swimming quickly to the surface when diving
- Holding your breath when ascending
- Underwater diving for an increased period of time
- Repeated dives within 24 hours
- Flying in an airplane after diving
- Having air pockets in equipment (such as masks and dry suits)
- Mechanical ventilation —use of a machine to move air into and out of the lungs (associated with pulmonary trauma)
- Exposure to shock waves from an explosion
The inner ear is connected to outside air through tubes to keep inner and outer pressure balanced. Blockages and congestion in these tubes increase the risk of ear barotrauma because the inside pressure is not allowed to change to match the outside pressure. These tubes may be blocked or limited by:
- Congestion from allergies or colds
- Middle ear infections—more common in younger children
- Defects of eustachian tube (small tube that runs from the middle ear to the back of the nose and upper throat and helps stabilize internal and external pressures)
- Damaged or blockage of eustachian tube—resulting from scarring or a tumor
- Cleft palate or lip
Similarly, blockages in the sinuses will block the flow of air from outside to inside the body. Sinuses may be impaired by:
- Nasal congestion from a sinus infection, cold, or allergies
- Structural defects of the sinuses or their drainage system
Pulmonary barotrauma may be more likely in those with damage from previous or current lung conditions.
Other factors that may affect the ability for air spaces in the body to work properly include:
Symptoms will depend on what areas are affected.
Ear barotrauma may cause:
- Discomfort or pain in one or both ears
- Feeling as though your ears are clogged
- Feeling of pressure in your ears
- Ringing in the ear— tinnitus
- Temporary hearing loss
- Rarely, bleeding from the ear
Sinus barotrauma may cause:
- Sinus pressure and/or pain
- Feeling of fullness in the head
- Nasal bleeding
- Tooth pain
Pulmonary barotrauma may cause:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Feeling of fullness in the chest
- Pain that radiates to the neck and/or shoulders
- Degrees of consciousness
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done to look for irritation or tissue damage. Barotrauma may be suspected based on your recent activities, such as air travel or scuba diving.
Ear structures will be visually examined
Suspected pulmonary barotrauma may be evaluated with:
Pulmonary barotrauma is serious and needs immediate medical attention. Treatment will depend on the specific lung problem that is present, such as a collapsed lung.
The following measures can also prevent barotrauma. Treatment options include the following:
Measures to Relieve Pressure
Pressure can be relieved with self-care and medications.
To relieve the pressure in the eustachian tube, you can:
- Suck candy
- Chew gum
- Inhale and gently exhale through your nose while pinching your nostrils shut. This forces air through the blocked eustachian tube and possibly opens it.
It is important to relieve nasal congestion and open your eustachian tube. Medications to relieve ear and sinus pressure include:
- Decongestant nasal sprays
- Oral decongestants
- Oral antihistamines
Pain relievers can be used if ear or sinus pressure is causing pain. Antibiotics may be used if a bacterial infection is present or possible.
Emergency medical care may include:
Surgery may be necessary to relieve the pressure if your eustachian tube does not open with other treatments. Your doctor will make a small cut in your eardrum to equalize the air pressure. Any fluid blocking the tube may also be removed.
To help reduce your chance of barotrauma during:
- If you can, postpone your flight if you have a cold or are congested. Use a decongestant if travel can not be delayed.
To relieve the pressure during take-off and landing, try:
- Sucking candy
- Chewing gum
- Breathing with your mouth open
- Use filtered earplugs to slowly equalize the air pressure against your eardrum.
- Avoid sleeping during descent because you may not be swallowing enough.
To help your baby through pressure changes, give your baby a pacifier or bottle during landing and take off.
- Get proper training and certification.
- Make sure all your equipment is working and vented properly.
- Keep diving depth to level of experience.
- Follow all breathing guidelines, especially when coming up from a dive.
- Don’t stay under the water at greater depths long periods of time.
- Avoid flying or going to a higher altitude for the next 24 hours after diving.
- Take a decongestant pill or nasal spray a little before diving.
American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
Divers Alert Network
Canadian Society of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
Barotrauma. American Hearing Research Foundation website. Available at: http://american-hearing.org/disorders/barotrauma. Updated October 2012. Accessed November 4, 2014.
Barotrauma. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries_poisoning/injury_during_diving_or_work_in_compressed_air/barotrauma.html. Updated May 2013. Accessed November 3, 2014.
Brandt MT. Oral and maxillofacial aspects of diving medicine. Military Medicine. 2004;169:137-141.
Ears and altitude. American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery website. Available at: http://www.entnet.org/content/ears-and-altitudeearsAltitude.cfm. Updated February 2, 2012. Accessed November 4, 2014.
Newton HB. Neurologic complications of scuba diving. Am Fam Physician. 2001;63(11):2211-2218.
Last reviewed December 2014 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.