Head shaking to release trapped water from the ears may cause brain damage

Researchers experimenting with 3D ear canals have shown that shaking the head to release any water trapped in the ear canal may cause brain damage.

swimmerImage Credit: WAYHOME studio / Shutterstock.com

The acceleration involved during head shaking was about ten times the force of gravity for infant ear sizes, which could lead to brain damage, says the team.

The researchers, from Cornell University and Virginia Tech, will present their findings on 23rd November at the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics 72nd Annual Meeting at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

The team focused on the acceleration needed to dislodge the water

"Our research mainly focuses on the acceleration required to get the water out of the ear lobe," says study investigator Anuj Baskota. "The critical acceleration that we obtained experimentally on glass tubes and 3D printed ear canals was around the range of 10 times the force of gravity for infant ear sizes, which could cause damage to the brain."

For the adult ear size, the larger diameter of the ear canal meant the acceleration was lower. The volume and position of the water in the ear canal alter the acceleration that is required to release it.

"From our experiments and theoretical model, we figured out that surface tension of the fluid is one of the crucial factors promoting the water to get stuck in ear canals," says Baskota.

On the plus side, Baskota and his colleagues Seungho Kim, Hosung Kang, and Sunghwan Jung say there are alternatives ways to release trapped water from the ear canal.

"Presumably, putting a few drops of a liquid with lower surface tension than water, like alcohol or vinegar, in the ear would reduce the surface tension force allowing the water to flow out," Baskota concludes.

People shake the head to prevent "swimmer's ear"

Although people who shake their head to remove water from the ears may trigger complications, ear, nose, and throat surgeon Michael Jay (Royal Adelaide Hospital) has previously said: "there is method in their madness."

Water trapped in the ears can cause an outer ear infection commonly referred to as "swimmer's ear." These infections tend to peak in the warmer months when more people take to the water.

"The ear canal is a bit of sitting duck for infections because it's a blind cul-de-sac," explained Jay. "You go for a swim, and you get water trapped in there. And then water hanging around in there for lengthy periods makes the skin soggy and predisposes it to infection."

People who spend a lot of time in the water should be aware of the symptoms of swimmer's ear which include itching inside the ear, a blocked sensation, muffled hearing, a pussy discharge, and pain. If left untreated, swimmer's ear can infect the face or even bones and cartilage in the skull.

Alternative ways to remove trapped water in the ears

Alternatives to head shaking for removing water trapped in the ears include the following:

  • Drain water from the ear by tilting the head and letting gravity do its job. Laying down on the side of the body with the waterlogged ear may also help any water drain.
  • Hold a warm compress against the ear. The compress should be applied for about 30 seconds, removed for one minute and the process repeated four or five times. A compress can be made by soaking a cloth in warm water and then wringing it out.
  • If these methods fail, another alternative is combining half alcohol, half vinegar to make an ear drop solution. The alcohol helps the water to evaporate, and the vinegar prevents bacterial growth. A sterile dropper should be used to apply 3 or 4 drops to the ear. After two to three minutes, the head can be tilted to the side to allow water to drain out.

No one should use the ear drop approach if they have an existing ear infection, ear pain, or a perforated eardrum or ear tube.


Shaking head to get rid of water in ears could cause brain damage. Eurekalert. Available from: https://www.eurekalert.org/login.php?frompage=/emb_releases/2019-11/aps-sht111819.php

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.


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