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What is Acoustic Hearing Loss?

Acoustic hearing loss, also known as acoustic trauma, is a common cause of sensory hearing loss. It occurs when a loud noise damages the hearing mechanisms in the inner ear. It typically occurs in only one ear, though repeated exposure to loud noises can result in both ears being damaged. While there are treatments available to those suffering from acoustic hearing loss, knowing the causes and symptoms is essential to preventing acoustic trauma as well as treating it.


Understanding the cause of acoustic hearing loss begins with understanding how the eardrum works. Sounds cause the drum to vibrate, and small bones transmit that vibration to the inner ear. Inside the ear, there are almost 25,000 rows of hair cells that respond to particular pitches of sound, transmitting that information to the brain. Loud and sudden noises, such as a gunshot near the head or an explosion, can damage these hairs. Prolonged exposure to loud noises, such as music or machinery, can also damage them. With every hair cell that is damaged, a person loses the ability to hear that particular pitch of sound, which results in acoustic hearing loss.


The symptoms of acoustic hearing loss can be partial or full loss of hearing or an incessant ringing in the ears, also known as tinnitus. People suffering from acoustic trauma often report a feeling of fullness in the ear, causing sounds to seem muffled. Because loud noises are often at a high frequency, the inability to hear high pitches or speak at a high frequency following a trauma is usually the first indicator for acoustic trauma. While many people recover their hearing completely within 48 hours after a trauma, it can also slowly get worse.


There is usually no treatment for those suffering from permanent acoustic hearing loss. For those who have only experienced a minor trauma, the ears will naturally heal themselves, though the damage to the hair cells can be permanent even if there is no noticeable difference in one’s hearing. The goal of treatment for acoustic hearing loss is to protect the ear from further damage as well as aid those suffering in communication. This can be achieved with hearing aids and aural rehabilitation which teaches patients how to work and live with hearing loss. Once a physician diagnoses acoustic hearing loss, they will typically monitor the patient through periodic hearing tests to determine whether the condition is worsening.


Prevention is key when it comes to acoustic hearing loss. Even for those who have already suffered an acoustic trauma, prevention can protect them from any further loss of hearing. To prevent acoustic hearing loss, always wear protective ear plugs or muffs when around or working with loud equipment, as well as when shooting guns, driving motorcycles or using chain saws. Patients and those concerned about acoustic hearing loss should not listen to loud music over a long period. In general, preventing acoustic trauma is dependent on protecting the ears from loud noises as much as possible. Doing this will protect the hair cells in the inner ear and prevent them from becoming damaged.