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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are nearly 3 million cases of head injuries every year. At least 1 million of these are traumatic brain injuries that lead to hospitalization. Head injuries, including mild concussions, can impact health in a variety of ways including reducing cognitive functions and causing challenges with mobility. Less recognized is how head injuries can also impact hearing health. Head injuries can contribute to the development of hearing loss, a chronic medical condition that reduces one’s ability to hear and process sound.
What are head injuries?
Head injuries refer to experiencing trauma to the head area which can range from mild to severe. Concussions are an example of a more mild head injury while traumatic brain injuries are the most severe type. The most common causes of head injuries are car accidents, falls, explosions, and the head being hit by an object or person like in contact sports. The population that most experiences traumatic brain injuries are men between the ages of 15 – 35.
Head injuries cause damage in a few ways. The main injury that occurs is a contusion or bruising of the brain which can occur as a result of the brain shaking and hitting the ways of the skull. In more moderate to severe head injury cases, this can cause hemorrhaging (bleeding) of the brain as well as swelling. Head injuries produce numerous symptoms including the following:
- Vertigo, dizziness, nausea
- Chronic migraines
- Tinnitus: a buzzing, ringing, clicking-like noise in one or both ears when no external sound is present.
- Challenges with sound localization which describes knowing which direction sound is coming from
Head injuries can also cause chronic symptoms that impact overall health. This includes:
- Sleep disorders like insomnia
- Mobility issues
- Impairing cognitive capacities related to memory, decision making, learning, communication, etc.
- Depression, anxiety, and mood swings
In addition to these long-lasting effects, head injuries can also damage the auditory system – the sensory system for hearing.
Link Between Head Injuries & Hearing Loss
Head injuries can cause hearing loss in a few ways. To better understand the impact head injuries can have on the auditory system, it is helpful to understand how we hear.
- Outer ear: consists of the outer cartilage, ear canal, and eardrum. The outer ear absorbs sound from the environment which travels down the ear canal and lands on the eardrum.
- Middle ear: the ossicles – three connected bones that are among the smallest in the body help push soundwaves further into the inner ear.
- Inner ear: the thousands of hair cells that are in the cochlea help convert incoming soundwaves into electrical signals. These signals then get carried to the brain via auditory nerves.
The brain is then able to further process these signals and assign meaning to them which is how we can understand what we hear.
The impact of head injuries can disrupt this process in a few ways that then causes hearing loss. Head injuries can cause the eardrum to rupture, dislocate the ossicles, or damage the hair cells and auditory nerves. These impairments prevent these integral components from carrying out their essential functions which maintain how we hear.
Treating & Managing Hearing Loss Caused by Head Injuries
Fortunately, there are useful ways that hearing loss is treated, alleviating symptoms and maximizing hearing capacity. If you have experienced a head injury or are at higher risk of head injuries (if you play contact sports for example), it is important to have your hearing assessed. Conducted by a hearing healthcare specialist, hearing tests involve a painless process that measures your hearing capacity in both ears.
Once your hearing needs are established, your hearing healthcare provider can recommend a treatment plan that meets those needs. Hearing aids are the most common treatment for hearing loss. These electronic devices are designed to provide ample support with hearing which alleviates symptoms and increases capacity to hear and process sound.
In addition to treating hearing loss, a few tips to further protect your hearing health include:
- Reduce exposure to loud noise by maintaining lower volume settings on electronic devices, minimizing background music or noise, avoiding places during peak hours, etc.
- Wear hearing protection like earmuffs, earplugs, headphones, etc.
- Wear protective gear while playing sports, riding in vehicles, while riding bikes, etc.