Injury to the temporal or parietal lobes of the brain, as well as damage to the actual mechanisms of the inner ear, can cause hearing loss. If the traumatic brain injury (TBI) or head injury was caused by someone else’s negligence — such as in a car accident — then the injured victim may have the right to claim compensation for their pain and medical expenses.
The CDC estimates that up to half of all TBIs involve hearing loss or sudden-onset tinnitus. Many concussion victims also report hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to sound) and balance issues and disorientation due to damage to the inner ear’s vestibular system.
Most cases of hearing loss that result from a TBI resolve after a few months with the proper treatment. It takes time for the brain’s auditory processing regions to recover. If the inner ear has been damaged, surgery can usually fix the issue.
We’ll cover the causes of hearing loss after a head injury, ear anatomy, types of hearing problems, hearing loss treatment, and how an experienced personal injury lawyer can help protect your rights.
Causes of Hearing Loss After a Severe Head Injury
There are two main types of damage that can cause hearing problems to arise after a head injury: neurological damage and mechanical damage.
Damage to the brain — classified as either a concussion or TBI depending on the severity — can disrupt neural connections that process auditory information from the ear. Even if the ear itself is completely healthy and unharmed, the damaged area of the brain struggles to interpret the sensory signals it is receiving from the organ. Note that the head does not have to strike an object to suffer harm; lurching forward or backward in a car accident is enough to cause a brain injury.
When the inner ear itself is damaged, this is known as acoustic trauma. A direct blow to the head or an explosion can disrupt the mechanical process the organs use to transmit vibrations to the brain. This is the second-most common cause of hearing problems due to injury after TBIs.
Ear Anatomy: How Hearing Works
To understand how hearing problems happen after an ear injury or concussion, it helps to understand how the ear functions. The ear consists of three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.
- The Outer Ear - This is the visible part of the ear. It is made up of the ear lobe and ear canal. The ear lobes help direct sound waves into the ear canal.
- The Middle Ear - Within here you’ll find the eardrum (tympanic membrane), a highly-sensitive thin layer of tissue that vibrates as soundwaves bounce against it. It transmits the vibrations to three tiny bones (ossicle bones), which then transmit the vibrations to the fluid of the inner ear.
- The Inner Ear - In the deepest part of the ear there is a special fluid and spiral structure (cochlea). The cochlea senses the vibrations passing into the fluid and converts this movement into electrical signals for the auditory nerve.
The auditory nerve transmits these signals to the brain. All of this information is passed along and interpreted in a fraction of a second.
Damage to any part of this process — a ruptured eardrum, dislocated ossicles, or severed neurons in the brain — can result in hearing loss after a head injury or concussion.
Types of Hearing Loss After a Head Injury
There are several types of hearing problems that can develop depending on what part of the ear or brain was damaged. Regardless of what type of hearing loss is present, all are considered a disability under personal injury law.
- Conductive Hearing Loss
This type of hearing problem occurs when sound cannot transfer from the inner ear to the brain. There are three ways this can happen.
The most common cause of conductive hearing loss is when the ossicle bones are damaged or dislocated. This prevents sound from traveling through the chain to the cochlea.
A less common cause is otosclerosis. This occurs when the three small bones become fused together until they become so tight that they cannot vibrate, making it difficult for sound to pass through. A brain injury can sometimes trigger abnormal bone growth throughout the body. This growth can occur inside the ear and lead to hearing loss.
If a person’s head is struck along the area directly over the ear, the force of the impact can tear the eardrum. When this happens, blood may accumulate in the middle ear (hemotympanum) and create sound conduction problems.
Symptoms: Muffled hearing, ears feel full or stuffy, inability to hear quiet sounds, dizziness, gradual loss of hearing, ear aches, fluid drainage from the ear
- Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Within the inner ear are delicate hair-like cells (cilia) whose purpose is to transfer sound to the auditory nerve. Damage to these cilia is the most common reason for hearing loss. However, it is rare for an injury to the cilia to cause complete hearing loss.
Most of the time, it is the clarity or loudness of sounds that are affected. In some cases, a person becomes more sensitive to sound. Loud noises that once weren’t too bothersome suddenly become excruciating.
Symptoms: Muffled hearing, trouble understanding speech (particularly children or female voices), difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds, trouble hearing when there’s background noise, gradual loss of hearing, dizziness, balance problems
- Labyrinthine Concussion
A labyrinthine concussion occurs when a sudden, traumatic injury damages the structures of the inner ear. The most common causes include explosions and airbags. The sudden impact or blast severely damages or destroys the cochlea. Symptoms may appear immediately or be delayed by several days.
Symptoms: Tinnitus (persistent ringing in the ears), vertigo, dizziness, balance issues, nausea, vomiting
- Meniere’s Syndrome/Hydrops
Excess pressure on the fluid of the inner ear chambers causes the fluid to shift, impairing hearing and balance. While there is no cure, steroids and other medications are available to help manage symptoms.
Symptoms: Vertigo, balance issues, nausea, vomiting, ringing/buzzing/roaring in the ears, sudden drop in hearing, loss of ability to hear low frequencies
- Central Hearing Loss
Direct injury to the parts of the brain that process sound, such as the temporal lobe or hearing pathways in the brain stem, can cause what’s known as central hearing loss. Hearing loss due to damaged hearing pathways is rare, however, because they are bilateral. This means that even if one pathway is injured, the other can still receive and transfer signals to the brain. An injury would have to damage both hearing pathways to cause hearing loss.
Symptoms: Aphasia, pure word deafness, auditory agnosia, cortical deafness, auditory hallucinations
- Auditory Verbal Agnosia
Also known as “pure word deafness,” this condition is caused by injury to the regions of the brain that process language. A person with auditory verbal agnosia will often describe hearing spoken words as gibberish. Unlike the disorder aphasia, the injured victim retains their ability to read and write and also recognize other sounds. This is less of a hearing disorder and more of a language disorder.
Symptoms: Loss of ability to comprehend speech
Hearing Loss Diagnosis and Treatment
A head injury after a traumatic accident should be taken seriously from the start. If you notice problems with your hearing, whether sudden or gradual, you should get a referral to see a hearing specialist.
The specialist, known as an audiologist, will perform a physical exam of the ear and skull to detect any structural damage like bone fractures. They may conduct a whisper test (covering one ear and testing the other using different volumes of sound), a tuning fork test, and an audiometer test.
If an injury to the brain is involved, an MRI or CT scan will likely be ordered to check for brain bleeds and other issues. Note that such scans often fail to detect evidence of concussions. A concussion specialist and neurologist need to be a part of your treatment team to make a proper evaluation and ensure you make a full recovery.
Treatment begins once your doctor determines what type of hearing loss has been suffered. They may recommend a variety of hearing loss treatments, including:
- Rehabilitation - Neurological hearing issues can be treated through training programs such as auditory discrimination and interhemispheric transfer to activate neural plasticity in the brain and teach it how to process sounds again.
- Surgery - Surgical procedures may be needed to remove extra bone growth or repair the eardrum.
- Hearing Aids - People with profound hearing loss benefit from high-powered hearing aids or bone-anchored hearing devices.
- Cochlear Implants - If a hearing aid provides only a small improvement in hearing, cochlear implants bypass the damage to the inner ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve.
Can You File a Personal Injury Claim for Hearing Loss?
If your hearing loss was caused by a motor vehicle accident that wasn’t your fault, an injury at work, or other traumatic circumstances beyond your control, you may have a personal injury case.
It’s vital you speak with a knowledgeable injury attorney as soon as possible. Hearing loss represents a significant disability that may impact you for the rest of your life.
Our personal injury lawyers can help ensure you make as full a recovery as possible. Gary Martin Hays & Associates work to ensure injured victims receive top-tier care without paying a cent out of pocket.
Not only do we fight for all medical bills to be paid by the insurance company, but also for additional compensation for the time missed from work and any future financial needs created due to your hearing injury.
Our Atlanta personal injury lawyers help victims of hearing loss due to accidents. Contact our legal team for a free consultation regarding your personal injury claim today.