Here’s how to help avoid middle ear barotrauma & more in hyperbaric oxygen therapy
If you’ve ever had the discomfort of an ear infection or a plane that dropped altitude too fast, you know how painful ear pressure can be.
In a pressurized chamber, it’s no exception.
Your body is skilled at adjusting to pressure changes. Normally, hyperbaric oxygen treatment is not painful on the ears. Thankfully, complications are very uncommon. However, about half of the side effects that are reported during hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) are related to ear pain. Ear barotrauma remains the most common complication of HBOT.1
Middle ear barotrauma in hyperbaric therapy is common—but avoidable
Let’s answer the top 8 questions that get asked about ear problems during HBOT.
1. I have a lot of earwax. Can I do hyperbaric therapy?
Yes, if the ear wax is removed. It’s standard procedure to check the ears before you do each HBO therapy. If your ear is plugged with wax, and it isn’t removed your ears may not be able to compensate for the pressure changes.
Your therapist may be able to take care of wax blockages before your session. Many hyperbaric facilities are equipped with ear wax removal kits.2
2. I’ve had some ear problems in the past. Can I do HBOT?
That’s a good question for your doctor because some things can safely keep you from doing HBOT.
New air pockets, like with a recent surgery, are impacted by the pressure change and can cause significant pain. Blockages, like with ear wax, can also keep your body from equalizing its internal pressure.
You should always let your doctor know if you’ve had:
- Ear surgery
- An ear infection
- Jaw surgery
- Water in your ear
- Tympanostomy tubes (“ear tubes”)
- Pain in your ear
- A current/recent sinus infection
- A current/recent cold or flu
- Seasonal allergies
- Stuffiness or a “full” feeling in your ears
- Dizziness with pressure changes
You only need to reschedule an appointment for many ear troubles, rather than discontinuing all your planned therapies.
3. When I’m in an airplane or traveling down a mountain, I get ear pain. Can I still do HBOT?
Many people who have pain when changing altitudes do fine when they have HBOT. Be sure to let your hyperbaric physician know if you have ear discomfort with altitude change. They’ll be able to dig deeper and help you come up with a plan.
Slowing down the chamber’s pressure change is a strategy that often helps people with sensitive ears. Your HBO therapist can easily extend the time it takes to increase and decrease the pressure. Sensitive ears usually respond more to the dramatic pressure change than the pressure itself.
Your therapist can also cap the pressure load. If you consistently get ear pain at a certain point in pressure, your HBOT physician may choose to continue your sessions at a lower pressure, even though it’s under what was initially planned.
4. Can I do hyperbaric therapy if I’m sick?
This will be up to your doctor. Being sick can put you at risk for ear problems in the chamber.2
Sicknesses that affect your sinuses can show up as ear pain. Even if you’re having small or predictable symptoms, like a runny nose, seasonal allergies, or a weak cold, let your doctor know.
5. What do I do if I get ear pain while I’m in the hyperbaric chamber?
Let your hyperbaric technician know as soon as you feel pain or discomfort. They will guide you through some techniques to help relieve pressure.
If your pressure is not relieved, the technician may end your session early. Make sure you inform your technician of the pain as soon as possible. This is not the time to muscle your way through the discomfort. It’s fine if your session needs to be cut short.
6. How do I clear my ears in the hyperbaric chamber?
There are several ways to do it. You’ve probably done them before when changing altitudes. Your HBO therapist will also coach you on these tricks.
When you go down a mountain, up in an airplane, or below sea level, think about what you would instinctively do to relieve the pressure. You can use many of those techniques in the chamber to the same effect.
Here’s how to clear your ears in the hyperbaric chamber:
- Intentionally yawn
- Take sips of water
- Pinch your nose and gently blow
Remember, be gentle when you’re trying these out. You may get suddenly dizzy if you wait to clear your ears. Let your HBO technician know if this happens.
7. Can I use earplugs for hyperbaric chamber therapy?
Generally, no earplugs are allowed. They can increase the pressure in your inner ear and make it harder for you to clear your ears. And depending on the material, they also may increase the risk of static, which creates a fire risk.
8. Can hyperbaric oxygen therapy make my eardrums rupture?
If appropriate safety measures aren’t in place, it could. However, since this is a clear risk with pressure-changing environments, hyperbaric oxygen therapy centers have extensive safety measures.
It’s why you are “brought up to pressure” and “brought down to room pressure” so slowly. This gives your body the time to comfortably accommodate the change.
If the pressure change was made quickly, it would be similar to deep-sea scuba diving and coming to the surface too fast. You could get the bends, and your ears would suffer from the fast pressure change. With the slow pressure change, it’s more like gently coming to the surface in a submarine.
It’s also important that you talk to your doctor about any ear-related concerns. Sickness, blockages, and recent procedures can make you more prone to ear pain and ear rupture. It’s standard procedure for hyperbaric technicians to ask you about these potential risks before each session.
Looking into hyperbaric therapy around Georgia?
We’re here to help—and happy to answer your questions about hyperbaric therapy. Even if it’s not an ear-related question. We have locations around Georgia, one in Fayetteville, NC, and one in San Francisco, CA. You or your doctor can reach us at (770) 422-0517.
[This article isn’t for diagnosing or prescribing care. With hyperbaric therapy, always follow the direction of the technician & physician managing your therapy.]