Ear barotrauma, commonly referred to as “airplane ear,” manifests primarily as a feeling of pressure in ear. This is a type of ear damage and is caused by pressure differences between the inside and outside of your ear. It can cause pain and, in some cases, permanent hearing loss.
The middle ear is a space between the internal and external parts of the ear that is filled with air. It has three small bones that aid in the transmission of sound. It also houses the eustachian tube, which connects to the area behind the nose. The majority of the time, this tube remains closed.
The pressure inside the middle ear must match the air pressure in your environment for your hearing to function normally. The eustachian tube should open if the external pressure is greater or less than the middle ear pressure. This balances the pressure between the outer ear and the middle ear.
When the pressure changes, the eustachian tube may not open normally. When this happens, the pressure difference can harm the eardrum. The eardrum is the membrane that differentiates the outer and middle ear. Too much change in ear pressure could result in bleeding or damage to the ears.
Ear barotrauma can affect people of all ages. It is very common among scuba divers. Traveling by plane is another common cause of ear barotrauma.
Causes of Feeling Pressure in Ear
Aside from changes in ear pressure, ear barotrauma can also occur when the eustachian tube is obstructed. Anything that leads to inflammation or fluid buildup around the tube has the potential to cause it to not open normally. These may include instances like:
- Congestion of the sinuses
- Being sick with a cold or another infection
- Abnormalities in anatomy
- Exposure to allergens or irritants
Otitis Media (Middle ear infection)
Otitis media, also known as a middle ear infection, occurs when there is a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum that can harbor bacteria or viruses. Ear infections are common culprits of feeling pressure in ear, fever, fluid drainage, and, in some cases, temporary hearing loss.
Due to the shape of their eustachian tubes, children are more likely to acquire otitis media than adults. Similarly, swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, can cause ear pressure in the event that water becomes trapped in your ear.
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
Ear fullness caused by inflammation in the jaw joint can occur if you clench or grind your teeth. If you experience pressure in ear or a feeling of fullness in your ears, jaw stiffness, jaw pain, chronic headaches, or neck pain, talk to your doctor or dentist about TMJ disorders.
Symptoms of Ear Barotrauma
The following are the most common symptoms of ear barotrauma:
- Pressure in ear
- Ear ache
- You have the sensation that your ear is blocked.
- Ear bleeding
- Your ears are ringing.
- Hearing loss
Experiencing pressure in ear is usually the first symptom of ear barotrauma. If the pressure difference has badly damaged your ear, you may experience ear pain and hearing loss over time.
Certain circumstances that cause ear barotrauma may also harm the lungs and sinuses. These may result in additional symptoms such as facial pain or shortness of breath.
Ear barotrauma symptoms can mimic those of other medical conditions or problems. For more information and to rule out any underlying medical condition, always consult your healthcare provider.
Diagnosing Ear Barotrauma
A health history and physical exam can help your doctor diagnose ear barotrauma. This could include an ear exam along with hearing and balance tests. An ear barotrauma diagnosis can only be made if you have recently experienced changes in external pressure, such as from an airplane flight, scuba dive, or mountain hike.
Your primary care physician may first diagnose you and then refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT or otolaryngologist) or audiologist for treatment.
Regardless of the cause of your pain, the ears need to be examined with an otoscope. Your eardrum needs a visual inspection to see if there’s fluid or if there’s damage or perforations. Some ear injuries may take weeks to heal and you may be at risk of losing your hearing.
In most cases, the only treatment is time which is why getting a proper diagnosis right away is critical to avoid complications.
If you feel like the room is spinning or you have a sensation of falling (vertigo), seek medical help right away.
How is ear barotrauma treated?
The treatment you receive will be determined by your symptoms, age, and overall health. It will also depend on the severity of the condition.
In some cases of ear barotrauma, treatment is not required. Most injuries heal on their own over time, and the majority of symptoms go away. However, if the injury was caused by a blast, your eardrum may not heal normally.
In this case, you may require medications to treat your ear barotrauma. These could include:
- Nasal steroids and decongestants to relieve congestion near and around the eustachian tube opening.
- If an infection occurs, antibiotics are prescribed.
- Pain relievers
- Surgery. If the ear barotrauma is severe, your doctor may reconstruct the eardrum or the opening into the inner ear. A tiny cut (incision) is sometimes made in the eardrum. In rare instances, inserting a ventilation tube into the eardrum may be recommended.
You may also be advised to stay in bed and keep your head elevated for a period of time. Serious injuries, such as a ruptured eardrum, may take months to heal.
Preventing Pressure in Ear
Experiencing pressure in the ears is no joke. It can be disturbing, annoying, distracting, or worse, painful. Here are some tips on how you can avoid this unpleasant feeling:
If you have a cold or allergies and are experiencing congestion because of that, you should avoid flying or scuba diving. You can also take medication, such as an antihistamine or decongestant. Doing so may help your ears equalize easily and prevent ear barotrauma.
The following may also help prevent pressure in the ears:
- Frequent swallowing
- Pinching your nose, closing your mouth, and breathing out through your nose
- Chewing gum
- Using earplugs when flying
Audiologists in Melbourne, FL: Harbor City Hearing Solutions
Feeling pressure in ear, especially if it occurs frequently or disrupts your daily activities, should not be taken lightly.
For any hearing health concerns, audiologists at Harbor City Hearing Solutions can provide a wide range of audiology services in Melbourne, FL.
Experience world-class hearing care with compassion at Harbor City Hearing Solutions.
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