Acoustic Trauma: How Loud Noise Exposure Can Lead To Tinnitus

person wearing earmuffs for protection from loud sounds

Loud sounds can cause irreparable harm to your hearing, a condition of the auditory system known as acoustic trauma. Through this article, you will discover the causes and effects of such damage, from temporary deafness to permanent hearing loss or tinnitus, and learn how to protect yourself against extreme noise levels and subsequent acoustic trauma to the inner ear.

How Does Loud Noise Affect The Inner Ear?

Hair cells and supporting cells inside the ear convert sound waves into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Unfortunately, when exposed to excessive noise levels, these fragile hair cells can become damaged or killed off completely, leading to hearing loss and other auditory-related issues.

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While a single loud noise or even a few instances of noise exposure are unlikely to cause damage to the ear severe enough to require hearing aids, acute acoustic trauma can result from extreme or prolonged exposure to loud noise, whether that noise comes as a result of ongoing, excessively loud noise exposure, as might be the case when an individual works in a loud environment, or when someone is exposed to a single louder sound, as might be found in a combat zone.

What Is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss is a preventable, yet permanent form of hearing impairment caused by exposure to excessively loud sounds, either in a single instance or over an extended period. This hearing damage should not be taken lightly; it may lead to serious long-term consequences if ignored. Exposure to loud noises and subsequent hearing loss is problematic because the damage is not easily reversible–if it can be reversed at all. The hearing mechanisms embedded deep within the inner ear cannot always recover from the damage inflicted by the acoustic injury often caused by excessively loud noise.

What Is A Decibel?

To understand how the ear is damaged during acoustic injury, it is important to understand sound on its own and how it interacts with the ear canal. The severity of sound is measured in decibels, and it can be quite hazardous to the ear if you don’t take precautions to prevent acoustic injury. Sounds with an intensity higher than 85 decibels have been known to cause hearing damage over time, whereas any sound louder than 120 decibels will hurt your ears instantly and can cause immediate issues.

How Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Is Associated With Tinnitus

When the hair cells of the inner ear deteriorate or are obliterated, false electrical signals can be transmitted to the brain, interpreting them as sound. This explains why people afflicted with tinnitus experience perpetual ringing or humming in their ears: the brain can no longer accurately process the electrical nerve signals. Unlike traumatic brain injury, which causes internal damage that leads to metaphorical “wires” being crossed, the damaged auditory system cannot adequately communicate because it, not the brain, has experienced trauma in one or both ears.

What Are Hair Cells And Supporting Cells Of The Inner Ear?

The inner ear is designed marvelously to convert sound waves into electrical signals that our brain comprehends as sounds. Hair cells move in response to sound waves and detect varying frequencies, from 20 to 20,000 Hz, while supportive cells structurally stabilize them. Working in tandem, these elements of the inner ear are responsible for transferring sounds coming in one or both ears into digestible, understandable information we come to understand as speech, for example. When these hair cells and supporting cells are exposed to loud sounds, they can be damaged, which impairs the way they detect, decode, and transmit sounds to our brain. 

What Is a Temporary Threshold Shift?

Prolonged exposure to loud noises can result in a type of temporary hearing loss known as a Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS). Fortunately, this type of auditory impairment will typically diminish with time; however, consistent contact with extreme intensities of noise may permanently harm your ears and cause irreparable damage. A temporary threshold shift can cause progressive hearing loss when it is continual, as in the form of chronic acoustic trauma. An unexpected, sudden noise such as an explosion can cause acute acoustic trauma, as can any devastating exposure to loud sound that quickly damages the ear. Be cautious when near any potentially explosive sounds, and protect your ears by wearing proper protective gear if applicable. 

A doctor or audiologist may suspect acoustic trauma of this kind if an individual presenting with symptoms of hearing loss or tinnitus works in a field that involves loud noises (construction, the army, etc.) or has had exposure to some form of sudden and intense noise exposure. Chronic acoustic trauma can cause difficulty hearing that may require interventions, including a hearing aid or other form of hearing support, depending on the degree of hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss can start with TTS, gradually shift into progressive hearing loss and tinnitus, and continue degrading auditory health unless intervention occurs to reduce the exposure to excessively loud noises. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Acoustic Trauma?

After exposure to loud noise, people may experience a range of symptoms associated with acoustic trauma, including hearing impairment, tinnitus, ear pain, sound sensitivity, dizziness and an overall sensation of fullness in the ears. These effects can either be temporary or chronic and appear instantaneously or surface gradually over time. 

What Is Ear Protection And Why Is It Important To Wear Around Loud Noises?

ear protection

Protecting your hearing can reduce the risk of developing tinnitus! Ear protection comes in several forms, such as ear plugs, muffs, or noise-canceling headphones, most of which have been developed to minimize difficulty hearing during use. These devices can shield your ears from loud noises that could cause permanent damage. Depending on the type of situation, different types of ear protection can be used. For example, using a filtered ear plug can allow you to still enjoy a play, movie, or concert without having to compromise the fidelity of sound. Whereas, using ear muffs would be more appropriate for going to a gun range. Investing in a good pair of protective gear is one step you can take towards preserving your hearing health, in order to prevent permanent hearing loss and damage to ear structures that can also lead to tinnitus!

Why Do I Have Tinnitus If I Have Normal Hearing After an Acoustic Trauma?

Now that we have covered the basics of hearing protection, damage to ear structures caused by prolonged exposure to high frequency sounds, and the function of the auditory nerve, let’s talk about why you can have normal hearing on a hearing test, but still have tinnitus. Even if your hearing returns to “normal” following exposure to loud music, a sudden acoustic trauma to the ears, or after prolonged exposure to loud sounds, you can still develop tinnitus. Tinnitus is caused by damage to the hair cells in the inner ear, and even if you do not have hearing loss, the damage to the hair cells can still cause the perception of ringing or buzzing in the ears. You may still have enough hair cell function to allow you to do well on a hearing test. 

What If I Have Exposure to Loud Noise From My Occupation?

loud construction site

With occupational noise exposure, it is essential to be proactive and safeguard your hearing from loud music, the sounds of machines buzzing, and more. This might consist of wearing ear protection, taking breaks from loud noises, and seeking medical help in case you suspect acoustic trauma or detect any signs or symptoms of hearing loss or tinnitus. Doing so can make a huge difference in protecting your ears and restoring normal function!

Is Ear Pain Normal After Acoustic Trauma?

Exposure to loud noises or acoustic trauma can often lead to discomfort in the ear, known as “ear pain.” This discomfort may be due to the harm inflicted on the inner ears’ fragile structures or increased pressure to your eardrum from the loud sound. So if you feel any ache or uneasiness after such an occurrence, you should immediately consult a medical professional. They may refer you for a hearing test and help determine how best to move forward to prevent permanent threshold shift and even reduce your exposure to unhealthy noise levels.

How Do I Know If I Have Hearing Loss?

If you fear that your hearing is not what it used to be, a few tell-tale signs could confirm the presence of any risk factors or issues. For instance, do you consistently find yourself straining to understand speech? Do people often have to repeat themselves when speaking around you? Are you unable to follow conversations in loud areas or having trouble listening even with the volume of your TV and radio cranked up? All these scenarios point towards potential hearing loss, tinnitus, or other hearing damage caused by continuous exposure to high noise levels. Hearing loss and tinnitus can be masked for a time, but they eventually make themselves known after continuous exposure to high frequencies, damage to the inner ear, and other common causes of hearing loss and tinnitus.

How Can I Have Hearing Loss When I Don’t Have Difficulty Hearing People?

Hearing loss can manifest differently, with some sounds being heard more clearly than others. Hearing loss most often occurs gradually over time, so the decline in hearing is usually not obvious to us. Therefore, getting a hearing test is imperative if you believe your auditory experience is impaired. This simple step could make all the difference in enjoying sound and music to their fullest potential again!

Can Hearing Aids Help Tinnitus Caused by Acoustic Trauma?

People wearing hearing aids

Hearing aids have the potential to help treat tinnitus caused by acoustic trauma and other sources of ear damage or hearing loss. By amplifying external sounds and making them easier to hear, hearing aids can be a viable solution for managing tinnitus caused by acoustic trauma. This helps reduce the perception of ringing or buzzing in one’s ears and significantly improves overall hearing capabilities. The impact noise has had on hearing may not be able to be reversed entirely, but it can be supplemented to restore damage to the ear caused by acoustic exposure. Some cases of acoustic trauma resolve spontaneously, but many do not and require hearing aids to treat hearing loss and to treat tinnitus.

Can Tinnitus Maskers Help Tinnitus Caused by Acoustic Trauma?

Tinnitus maskers can help diminish the effects of tinnitus by producing an external sound that masks the ringing or buzzing sensation. With this device, you can go about your daily life without being bothered by intrusive noises in your head. Because damage to the ear can be caused by even a single exposure to loud or intense noises, many cases do not resolve spontaneously. Tinnitus maskers can help bridge the gap when damage to the ear caused by acoustic trauma has made the accurate interpretation of sound (and silence) difficult.

Acoustic Trauma, Tinnitus Treatment, and Resolution

To summarize, exposure to excessive noise can negatively impact hearing health and may result in serious issues like tinnitus or noise-induced hearing loss. Taking preventive measures such as wearing ear protection and consulting with a doctor if you display any signs of acute trauma or tinnitus. With the right care and attention, effectively avoiding further damage can be achieved while safeguarding your existing hearing!

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