Acoustic trauma is an injury to the inner ear that’s often caused by exposure to a high-decibel noise. This injury can be related to a single, very loud noise or by exposure to a noise 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 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, causing 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 also require different treatments.
People at an increased risk for acoustic trauma include those who:
- work at a job where loud industrial equipment operates for long periods of time
- live or work where other high-decibel sounds continue for long periods of time
- frequently attend music concerts and other events with high-decibel music
- use gun ranges
- encounter extremely loud sounds without proper equipment, such as earplugs
People exposed to over 85 decibels of sound continually 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. Experts point out that people first begin to have difficulty hearing high-frequency sounds in many cases. 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 a silent environment. 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. This test involves providing sounds of varying loudness and different tones to more carefully assess what you can and can’t hear.
Technical Hearing Assistance
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 scenario.
Your doctor may prescribe oral steroid medications to help with acoustic trauma in some cases. 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.