Barotrauma : I hear not so good

June 05, 2015 0 Comments

Barotrauma : I hear not so good

Its a very rare day that I have anything “surfing” in common with someone on the world tour.  But when the effervescent Sally Fitzgibbons wiped out in her Fiji Pro round 2 heat and burst her ear drum – I could feel her pain.

I have the distinction of having done it twice – both ears, years apart but at the same surf spot. Manly, or South Steyn to be more precise.

Not exactly renowned for large or heavy waves but a month back we had the fortune of a double overhead easterly swell and offshore southerly winds. Mixed in with a dropping tide and sand banks that could have been carved by Michelangelo himself and it was the perfect combination to deliver the solid freight trains that were detonating everywhere. But I digress….

After several hours of surfing, the tiredness in the shoulder blades and early season neoprene rash dictated it was time to come in. Spotting a decent sized right, I paddled in to find the wave was actually a chunky closeout and it was time to take evasive action.

Diving forward off the board, my head connected at an awkward side angle to the water. There was a distinct “POP” and what felt like a liquid screwdriver being jammed in the side of my skull. I knew straight away that I had burst my ear drum.  This was after all, my second ride on this merry go round.

Coming to the surface my head was spinning like a patron at a 70’s disco. Up had become down and left flipped over right. Each motion I made to correct the balance would send it spinning in the opposite direction. The only way I can describe it, is having a compass that instead of pointing north, spins wildly on its axis. It was in this dazed state, that I let the waves eventually wash me in like a piece of driftwood.

A trip to the hospital later confirmed I had just had what is referred to as a barotrauma.

Barotrauma is stress exerted on your eardrum when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance. If the pressure difference is severe, your eardrum can rupture.

That would have been the “pop” sound then.

So what was the deal with the spinning or pseudovertigo?

The body controls balance and equilibrium through the semicircular canals, organs located in the inner ear. These three looping tubes are at right angles with each other, representing all three planes of dimensional space, and are attached to the sacculus and utriculus, collections of sensory cells. When the head changes position, calcium carbonate crystals shift on their bed of sensory hairs; the cerebellum reads this information and determines the position of the head relative to gravity, giving the body a sense of balance. When a ruptured eardrum occurs, the calcium carbonate crystals move independent of the movements of the head, and the cerebellum becomes confused. The result is vertigo – the brain thinks the head is moving, when no actual movement is present or as I like to think of it. The chandeliers in your brain swinging while the floor is dead still.

All in all, not the greatest experience and one that has kept me out of the water and played havoc with my hearing. 

As for Sally, tough cookie paddled back out, dominated her next heat and went on to win the whole event! Hardcore!

Russel P
Has spent over 30 years of his middle aged life trying to spend more time in the ocean. Likes to surf, bodysurf, free dive and pretend he enjoys chasing big waves.

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