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Acoustic trauma is an injury to the inner ear that’s often caused by exposure to a high-decibel noise. This injury can occur after exposure to a single, very loud noise or from exposure to noises at a lower decibel over a long period of time. Some injuries to the head can cause acoustic trauma if the eardrum is ruptured or if other injuries to the inner ear occur.
The eardrum protects the middle ear and inner ear. It also transmits signals to the brain by way of small vibrations.
Acoustic trauma can damage the way that these vibrations are handled, resulting in hearing loss. Sound moving into the inner ear can cause what doctors sometimes call a threshold shift, which can trigger hearing loss.
If your doctor believes that your symptoms indicate acoustic trauma, they may try to differentiate between trauma that occurred through injury and trauma that occurred through exposure to loud noises. Different degrees of acoustic trauma can require different treatments.
People at an increased risk for acoustic trauma include those who:
People continually exposed to noise levels over 85 decibels are at an increased risk for acoustic trauma. Your doctor may provide an estimate of the decibel range of normal daily sounds, like an estimate of around 90 decibels for a small engine. They’ll do this to help you assess whether the sounds that you encounter put you at a higher risk for acoustic trauma and hearing loss.
The main symptom of acoustic trauma is hearing loss. In many cases, people first begin to have difficulty hearing high-frequency sounds. Difficulty hearing sounds at lower frequencies may occur later. Your doctor may test your response to different frequencies of sound to assess the extent of acoustic trauma.
One of the most important symptoms that can signal the onset of acoustic trauma is called tinnitus. Tinnitus is a type of injury to the ear that causes a buzzing or ringing sound. Those with mild to moderate tinnitus will most often be aware of this symptom when they’re in silent environments. Tinnitus can be caused by drug use, changes to blood vessels, or other factors, but it’s often a precursor to acoustic trauma when it’s caused by exposure to loud noises.
Tinnitus can be persistent or chronic. Long-term tinnitus is a good reason to suspect acoustic trauma.
Your doctor will ask you what kind of noises you’ve been exposed to during different times of your life to help make a diagnosis. Your doctor may also use something called audiometry to detect signs of acoustic trauma. In this test, you are exposed to sounds of varying loudness and of different tones to more carefully assess what you can and can’t hear.
Hearing loss can be treated, but it cannot be cured. Your doctor may recommend technological assistance for your hearing loss condition, such as a hearing aid. New types of hearing aids called cochlear implants may also be available to help you deal with hearing loss from acoustic trauma.
Your doctor will most likely recommend using earplugs and other kinds of devices to protect your hearing. These items are part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that employers should offer to people when they’re in a workplace with exposure to loud noises.
Your doctor may prescribe oral steroid medications to help with some cases of acoustic trauma. However, if you’re experiencing hearing loss, your doctor will stress protection of the ear to prevent the problem from getting worse.
Acoustic trauma and related hearing loss cannot be reversed. Protecting your ears from loud noises can help you maintain your hearing. Your doctor might recommend that you learn sign language if your hearing loss becomes considerable.
Written by: Seth Stoltzfus and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Medically reviewed on: Dec 10, 2015: Steven Kim, MD
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