Roller Coaster Rides May Cause Ear Injury


Summer is upon us, a time when people flock to roller coaster rides. A new study suggests that the force of acceleration on a roller coaster can be linked to a common ear injury known as ear barotrauma.

Most people are likely more familiar with barotrauma as it relates to air travel and scuba diving, and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the explosion of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Although the risk of experiencing barotrauma when riding a roller coaster is low, it is most likely to occur if passengers do not remain facing forward during the ride.

Kathleen L. Yaremchuk, MD, Chair, Department of Otolaryngology at Henry Ford Hospital, is the senior author of the study, which presents the first reported link between the rapid acceleration that takes place during a roller coaster ride and barotrauma. This ear injury occurs when there is a quick change in pressure between the external environment, the ear drum, and the pressure in the middle ear space.

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In most cases, this change in air and ear pressures can be remedied when people swallow several times, yawn, or chew gum. During the extreme acceleration of a roller coaster ride, however, it is nearly impossible for individuals to equalize ear pressure using these methods. Ear barotrauma typically causes dizziness, a sensation of wanting your ears to “pop,” and ear pain, and in extreme cases can cause temporary hearing loss.

The case studied by Yaremchuk and her team involved a 24-year-old man who had turned his head during a roller coaster ride, causing his right ear to be exposed to about 0.6 PSI (pounds per square inch) when the roller coaster accelerated, as estimated by the Henry Ford otolaryngologists. The pressure caused barotrauma to the ear, resulting in pain, swelling of the ear canal, and an inflamed ear drum. The ride he was on reached a maximum speed of 120 mph within 4 seconds.

The patient’s symptoms improved within 72 hours. Typical treatment for barotrauma is a decongestant to relieve symptoms and avoidance of the causative event at least until the swelling has decreased.

Although this common ear injury is not so common among roller coaster riders, it is worth noting that parents should tell their kids not to turn their heads while riding a roller coaster. The same goes for all the big kids out there as well.

Henry Ford Health System, press release April 30, 2010