How Head Injuries Impact Hearing and Balance
The force of a traumatic brain injury (also known as a TBI, concussion, or head injury) can damage or displace the delicate bones of the inner ear, rupture the eardrum, and disrupt parts of the brain responsible for auditory processing. A persistent ringing, buzzing, or hissing sound may occur in one or both ears, and some TBI patients also report hyperacusis, which is an extreme sensitivity to sound. Additionally, injuries to the inner ear can impact the vestibular system, which is made up of tiny fluid-filled canals that send signals about your head’s position to the brain. Dislodging parts of the vestibular system leads to spatial disorientation, dizziness, difficulty in finding footing or judging distances, and a feeling that you or your surroundings are in motion.
How Common Are They?
The CDC estimates that 1.6 million traumatic brain injuries each year result from contact sports, car collisions, and recreational activities. Of those injuries, up to 50% involve hearing loss or sudden-onset tinnitus. TBIs are especially common among football players, with up to 10% of all college players and 20% of all high school players sustaining TBIs during any given year. In the elderly, falls are the leading cause of TBIs, which can be especially serious when blood-thinning medications are in use.
Is the Hearing Loss Permanent?
Fortunately, most cases of hearing loss resulting from a TBI resolve on their own within a few months. As the brain heals, auditory processing will recover. If a bone fracture or displacement has occurred, corrective surgery will usually fix the problem. Occasionally, hearing loss from a TBI is permanent, such as when the cochlea is irreparably damaged, but this is rare.
A traumatic brain injury must be treated by a physician right away. Because of the risk of hematoma, or bleeding in the brain, imaging tests are necessary to assess the extent of the damage. If the injury to the ear is physical, this will often be apparent following a CT or MRI scan. Neurological causes are a bit harder to diagnose but can be identified through a critical evaluation by an audiologist. If you have been impacted by a traumatic brain injury and notice any changes in your hearing or equilibrium, make an appointment with an audiologist as soon as possible. They will perform a series of tests to assist in determining your treatment options. Because hearing and balance are so integral to our ability to communicate, it is important to distinguish between hearing loss and cognitive disruptions following a TBI.
To prevent TBIs, always wear helmets or other protective headgear when playing potentially hazardous sports and engaging in recreational activities such as cycling, skateboarding, and horseback riding. While driving or riding in a vehicle, always wear your seatbelt. During the winter, hold on to railings and step carefully in icy conditions to avoid losing your footing. And as simple as it may sound, be careful when entering or exiting the shower. Many people slip and fall on slick bathroom tiles every year. Prevention is always going to be the best defense against TBI-induced hearing loss. If you or someone you know has suffered a head injury and is experiencing hearing difficulties, please contact our caring team today!