Vestibular neuronitis in pilots: Follow-up results and implications for flight safety

Avi Shupak*, Zohar Nachum, Yoram Stern, Dror Tal, Amnon Gil, Carlos R. Gordon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Objectives: To report our experience over the past 12 years with the evaluation and follow-up of pilots with vestibular neuronitis and to discuss points relevant to flight safety and the resumption of flying duties. Study Design: A retrospective, consecutive case series. Methods: Eighteen military pilots with vestibular neuronitis were examined and followed up. A complete otoneurological workup was performed, including both physical examination and laboratory evaluation. The latter included electrooculography (EOG) and a rotatory chair test using the smooth harmonic acceleration protocol. Results: The mean patient age was 35 ± 6 years (range, 23 to 42 y), and the average follow-up period was 20.5 ± 12.8 months (mean ± standard deviation [SD]; (range, 11 to 48 mo). Electro-oculography caloric test on presentation documented significant unilateral hypofunction in all patients. Thirteen of the 18 patients (72%) had abnormal smooth harmonic acceleration test results. None of the pilots reported any symptoms on follow-up. However, five (28%) had positive otoneurological examination findings, and eight (44%) still had significant caloric lateralization (>25%). The average caloric hypofunction was reduced from 67.8% ± 29.3% at onset to 40% ± 16% (mean ± SD, P <.05, paired t test). Seven of the patients (39%) had additional electro-oculography findings beyond caloric hypofunction. These included spontaneous, positional, and positioning nystagmus. Smooth harmonic acceleration disease on follow-up was documented in eight patients (44%), five of whom had canal paresis. Eleven patients (61%) demonstrated residual vestibular damage on follow-up. In 6 of these 11 cases (55%), the laboratory evaluation revealed vestibular deficits otherwise undiagnosed by the bedside test battery. Conclusions: The vestibular system plays a central role in orientation awareness and is often challenged by flying conditions. The finding that approximately 60% of pilots who have had vestibular neuronitis continue to show signs of vestibular malfunction, despite apparent clinical recovery, emphasizes the need for a complete vestibular evaluation, including specific bedside testing and laboratory examinations, before flying duties can be resumed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)316-321
Number of pages6
JournalLaryngoscope
Volume113
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2003
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Electronystagmography
  • Rotatory chair
  • Vestibular compensation
  • Vestibular function tests
  • Vestibular neuronitis

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