Barotrauma and Decompression Illness of the Inner Ear: 46 Cases During Treatment and Follow-Up

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Introduction:Diving accidents affecting the inner ear are much more common than was once thought. Among the 319 patients treated in our clinic between January 2002 and November 2005, 46 cases involved 44 divers with symptoms of acute inner ear disorders. The objective of the present article is to investigate the symptoms of the acute disorders and assess any residual damage.Study Design:Retrospective case analysis.Materials and Methods:The medical records were used to study the cases of 18 divers treated for inner ear decompression illness on 20 occasions and 26 divers who had inner ear barotrauma. The symptoms of the disorder at the beginning of treatment, latency period before the first therapeutic measures, kind of initial therapy, symptoms after the accident, and hearing and balance functions at the last examination in our clinic were assessed. Divers with inner ear decompression illness were examined via means of transcranial or carotid Doppler ultrasonography for the presence of a vascular right-to-left (R/L) shunt.Results:Of 18 divers with inner ear decompression illness, 17 reported vertigo as the main symptom. In one diver, the inner ear decompression illness was manifested bilaterally. The divers with inner ear decompression illness had been treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy in 14 of 20 cases; the average latency period before the start of therapy was 40 hours (median, 10 h). In 15 (83%) of 18 patients, a large R/L shunt was detected, and in 14 (78%) of 18 patients, residual cochleovestibular damage was detected. Only 9 of 26 patients with inner ear barotrauma mentioned feeling dizzy, and in no patient was vertigo the main symptom. Twenty-one patients complained of tinnitus, whereas 20 complained of hearing loss. The hearing loss ranged from an unobtrusive difference of 10 dB between the ears up to complete deafness. Three patients were subjected to tympanoscopy because of suspected rupture of the round window membrane. Of patients with inner ear barotrauma, 78% had residual cochleovestibular damage.Conclusion:We describe for the first time a patient with bilateral manifestation of inner ear decompression illness. Inner ear decompression illness is frequently associated with a R/L shunt; therefore, after a diving accident, the patient's fitness to dive should be assessed via a specialist in diving medicine. Both decompression illness and barotrauma of the inner ear result in residual cochleovestibular damage in more than three of four patients.

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