April 30, 2010 -- People sometimes complain of dizziness or an upset stomach after a riding a roller coaster, but now a new report suggests the high speeds and sudden turns of this popular ride can also cause ear damage.
In one of the first case studies of its kind to be reported, doctors from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit discussed the treatment of a 24-year-old man who suffered ear barotrauma after riding a roller coaster that reaches a maximum speed of 120 miles per hour within four seconds.
Ear barotrauma occurs when there is a quick change in air pressure that affects the eardrum and pressure in the middle ear. The condition often occurs during scuba diving, air travel, or being near explosives.
In the case reported by Henry Ford Hospital doctors, the patient's head was turned during the ride. Thirty-six hours after the ride, the man reported feelings of pain and fullness in the right ear. A physical examination revealed damage to his right ear, including a swollen ear canal and an inflamed eardrum. The eardrum was not punctured.
The patient’s left ear was fine, suggesting that his right ear endured the full impact of the roller-coaster motion while his head was turned, doctors reported. Study researcher Kathleen L. Yaremchuk, MD, chair of the department of otolaryngology at Henry Ford Hospital, and colleagues estimated that the patient's right ear was exposed to about 0.6 pounds per square inch -- a measurement used to gauge pressure -- when the roller coaster accelerated. The patient did not receive treatment and his symptoms cleared up within three days.
The case study was presented April 30 at the Triological Society's 113th annual meeting, part of the Combined Otolaryngology Spring Meetings in Las Vegas.
"As rollercoasters continue to push the envelope of speed, otolaryngologists need to be aware of this new cause of barotrauma to the ear," Yaremchuk says in a news release. "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."
Other types of roller-coaster injuries have been reported in medical literature before, such as bruising and spine injuries, including vertebral disk herniation or tear in the tissue surrounding the spine. These injuries are associated with the force of roller-coaster acceleration. Ear injuries are not commonly associated with amusement park rides.
Of course, not all roller-coaster riders experience ear trauma. Yaremchuk acknowledges that the patient's case was unique and that all factors were perfectly aligned to induce this condition.
"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 eardrum," says Yaremchuk in the news release. "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."