Barotrauma is the pain or discomfort that you feel when there is a difference in air pressure between the outside environment and the inside of your body. You may experience this discomfort when you fly in an airplane or go scuba diving.
The air inside your body squeezes together or expands (swells) as the outside pressure (from water or air pressure) increases or decreases. The squeezing and the swelling can cause pain and damage. Barotrauma can affect the ear, face (sinuses), and lungs—any part of the body with air inside.
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Barotrauma most commonly affects the middle ear because that is where there is a pocket of air that is sensitive to changes in air pressure.
- In the ear, you have a thin layer of skin (or membrane) at the end of the ear canal that vibrates and transmits sound to your middle ear. This is called the eardrum.
- Normally, the air pressure inside and outside your ear is the same. The eustachian tube, the tube that connects the middle ear and the throat, works to balance the air pressure on both sides of your eardrum by allowing air to flow into or out of the middle ear.
- Ear barotrauma is caused when the eustachian tube gets blocked and your body is not able to equalize the air pressure inside and outside the eardrum.
Ear barotrauma is usually not severe or dangerous and is easily treatable, but occasionally there are complications such as
loss of hearing
, ear infection, dizziness, or a perforated (punctured) eardrum.
Sinuses are air-filled pockets in the bone around the nose.
- Sinus barotrauma occurs when there is a difference in pressure between the air in the sinuses and the pressure outside.
- You may experience pain around your cheek bones or above your eyes.
- You may also experience headaches.
In the presence of a cold or nasal congestion, this may lead to severe
Pulmonary barotrauma is the injury that is caused when outside pressure is different than the pressure of the air in your lungs.
- Scuba divers swim with canisters of compressed air for breathing under water. If a diver has too much compressed air and ascends without properly exhaling, the lungs may overinflate. One complication is that the lung could collapse.
Another complication is “decompression sickness” (often referred to as “the bends”).
- Decompression sickness occurs when nitrogen, a chemical dissolved in blood by high pressure, forms bubbles as pressure decreases (such as when you swim up to the surface when diving). These bubbles may leak out into your bloodstream as air bubbles, called air embolisms.
- Air embolisms can travel to any organ in the body and are dangerous when they block blood vessels that feed an organ, especially the heart, lungs, and the brain.
- Decompression sickness is classified as Type 1 or Type 2. Type 1 is when the bubbles affect the tissues around joints. Knees, elbows, and shoulders are most often affected. Type 2 is more serious and involves the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) or the lung and heart.
Barotrauma can even be due to equipment. The equipment, such as a mask or dry suit that you use for scuba diving, can block and trap air against the skin. If such an air pocket exists when you dive, you may become injured. Dry suits can painfully pinch your skin. Masks can cause blood vessels in the eyes to burst.
Contact your doctor if you think you may have some type of barotrauma.