Roller coasters are a lot of fun, but conditions experienced during the rides may cause damage to your ears.

Physicians at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit say they have found a link between the force of acceleration in roller coasters and a common ear injury – ear barotrauma – that occurs when there is a relatively quick change in pressure between the external environment, the ear drum and the pressure in the middle ear space.

Results from their study will be presented today at the Triologocial Society's 113th Annual Meeting in Las Vegas.

Could riding this 310 ft monster damage your hearing?

(photo credit: wikipedia)

In its extreme, ear barotrauma can lead to temporary hearing loss, and most commonly causes dizziness, ear discomfort or pain, or a sensation of having the ears "pop." Since barotrauma from a roller coaster happens suddenly, it very difficult for the patient to equalize ear pressure by simply yawning or chewing gum.

Despite the risk, doctors say thrill seekers shouldn't worry. "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 ear drum," said Kathleen L. Yaremchuk, M.D., Chair, Department of Otolaryngology at Henry Ford Hospital. "It would be highly unlikely to do this multiple times in a row."

Ear barotrauma has been linked to air travel and scuba diving, and most recently to the improvised explosive devices or IEDs being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Researchers investigated ear barotrauma in a 24-year-old male who experienced pain and fullness in his right ear about 36 hours after riding a roller coaster roller to determine if the ride was responsible.

As the ride began to accelerate, the patient's head was turned to the left to speak with his girlfriend, causing his right ear to sustain full impact of the forward throttle. The roller coaster he was riding reaches a maximum speed of 120 mph within 4 seconds.
Otolaryngologists found the patient's left ear was normal, but found the right ear canal was swollen and the ear drum inflamed.

Upon further examination, researchers estimated that the patient's right ear was exposed to about 0.6 PSI when the roller coaster accelerated. While not enough to perforate the ear drum, the pressure was enough to cause barotrauma to the ear.

The patient's symptoms improved, with observation, within 72 hours. With most cases of barotrauma, otolaryngologists typically recommend patients take decongestants to relive symptoms, and that they not put themselves in the same situation that caused the barotrauma until the inner/middle ear swelling has decreased.

But roller coaster enthusiasts should not let the risk of ear barotrauma prevent them from enjoying the ride.

"As roller coasters continue to push the envelope of speed, otolaryngologists need to be aware of this new cause of barotrauma to the ear," says Yaremchuk.  "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."