Hearing function in a hyperbaric environment


Navy divers' hearing function was assessed as part of three saturation deep dives to 1,000 feet of sea water (fsw) to determine explanations for threshold shifts observed under hyperbaric conditions. Across the three deep dives, different aspects of the ear were evaluated, including air- and bone-conduction pure-tone thresholds, real ear probe microphone measurements, auditory evoked potentials, and central auditory processing assessments. Attempts to measure middle ear function and cochlear function (through otoacoustic emissions) were unsuccessful. Baseline measurements were obtained at 0 fsw in air before and after the saturation deep dives. Results showed that some aspects of hearing function remained unchanged with increases in depth. In general, audiometric thresholds at depth were similar to those measured on the surface at 500, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, and 4,000 Hz. However, hearing sensitivity actually improved at depth at 6,000 and 8,000 Hz. The use of a specially designed sound booth for a pressurized heliox environment yielded significantly lower ambient noise levels and improved the accuracy of threshold measurement. Auditory evoked potential measurements and central auditory processing function were relatively unaffected by changes in depth. Significant changes at depth were seen in ear canal resonance which shifted up in frequency; this finding was attributed to the effect of helium on the hearing mechanism. Because objective measurement of middle ear and inner ear function were not methodologically possible, questions still remain regarding the interpretation of middle and inner ear function at depth. Nonetheless, our overall findings suggest that most aspects of hearing functioning are similar under high atmospheric pressures and in heliox as they are on the surface, with the exception of shifts in ear canal resonance and improvements in audiometric thresholds at high frequencies.

Publication Title

Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine

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