Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has been in the spotlight lately as new research suggests that participating in contact sports can have lasting effects on cognition. But TBI is not limited to athletics – it can result from automobile accidents, falls, or even being in the vicinity of extreme vibrations resulting from weapons discharge. And TBI, aside from causing cognitive impairments, can also cause hearing loss.
Facts About TBI
TBI is defined as any brain injury that is caused by force or intense vibration to the head. The Centers for Disease Control reports over 1 million hospitalizations per year as a result of TBI, and up to 3 million cases not requiring hospitalization, including mild concussions. The segment of society most affected by TBI is males age 15-35, likely due to participation in contact sports and a generally greater propensity for risk-taking.
TBI-Related Hearing Loss
Injuries to the head can result in conductive or sensorineural hearing loss either by damaging the auditory pathways (any parts of the ear up to and including the auditory nerves) or the parts of the brain that interpret sound. TBI may also cause tinnitus and vestibular impairment, the latter being damage to the small organs responsible for most of our sense of balance, close to but independent from the auditory parts of the ears. This can result in vertigo and/or nausea, as well as problems balancing and coordinating movements.
The most common parts of the auditory system injured as a result of TBI are the eardrum, the parts of the middle ear, and the cochlea. As they are closest to the outside of the head, they are most frequently in the line of injury. If they are injured, hearing loss will be immediate and noticeable. This hearing loss may be temporary, surgically treatable, or permanent depending on the type and severity of the damage.
Another type of hearing loss commonly associated with TBI is “hidden hearing loss.” This is a type of hearing loss that occurs when there is damage to the auditory nerves that prevent them from effectively transporting all the information they receive from the ears to the brain. If a person with hidden hearing loss has their hearing tested, they will be shown to have normal or near-normal hearing ability, yet in the real world, with lots of sounds coming at a person at once, they will have trouble hearing as their auditory nerves don’t have the bandwidth to transport all the sounds their ears are receiving.
A person with hearing damage from TBI may also have trouble locating the spatial origins of sounds, or might experience everyday sounds as painfully loud (a condition known as hyperacusis).
Signs of TBI
Sometimes when we experience a head injury we might not immediately realize how severe it is. Here are some signs that, in concert, might suggest a person has suffered TBI:
- Problems walking, talking, standing upright or coordinating movements
- Loss of any of the five senses
- Fatigue or insomnia
- Uncontrollable muscle contraction
- Sexual dysfunction
- Memory trouble or problems learning
- Inability to concentrate
- Difficulty making future plans or decisions
- Difficulty swallowing
- Abnormal problems with language, reading and writing
- Unusual behavior or personality changes
If you or someone you know shows these symptoms, seek immediate medical treatment. Tests should be conducted immediately to determine the severity of the injury and see whether hydrocephalus (water on the brain) or some other consequence could be worsening the damage.
Caring for Someone with TBI Hearing Loss
TBI can have serious effects that can be long-lasting or permanent. The injured person should have the assistance of healthcare professionals throughout the rehabilitation process, including audiologists. The prognosis will be particular to the individual case, but regardless the injured person will require care and consideration. They may be frightened, disoriented, and feeling disconnected.
It’s important to maintain calm environments without competing signals for attention. This means keeping background noises to a minimum, and speaking to the injured person clearly, one at a time, and in a way that they can see your face. There may be technologies that can assist you with your particular situation, so be sure to ask doctors and all healthcare workers for their suggestions on what you can do.
Treating Hearing Loss
If a hearing loss is suspected, contact us today. Our team provides comprehensive hearing health services and are here to help.