Concussions & Tinnitus: What’s the Connection?

Woman with hands on her head suffering from concussion related tinnitus.

You know that scene in your favorite action movie where something blows up next to the hero and the sound goes all high-pitched-buzzing? Well, guess what: that likely means our hero sustained at least a mild traumatic brain injury!

To be sure, brain injuries aren’t the bit that most action movies linger on. But that high pitched ringing is something called tinnitus. Tinnitus is most often discussed in the context of hearing loss–but it turns out that traumatic brain injuries like concussions can also cause this particular ringing in the ears.

Concussions, after all, are one of the most common traumatic brain injuries that occur. And they can happen for a wide variety of reasons (car crashes, sports accidents, and falls, for example). How something like a concussion causes tinnitus can be, well, complicated. But the good news is that even if you suffer a brain injury that causes tinnitus, you can usually treat and manage your condition.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a specific type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Think about it like this: your brain is nestled pretty tightly into your skull (your brain is large–and your skull is there to protect). When anything comes along and shakes the head violently enough, your brain starts moving around in your skull. But because there’s so little extra space in there, your brain may literally smash into the inside of your skull.

This hurts your brain! The brain can impact one or more sides of your skull. And when this occurs, you experience a concussion. (When you visualize this, it makes it easy to see how a concussion is literally brain damage.) Symptoms of concussions include the following:

  • Loss of memory and confusion
  • Headaches
  • Blurry vision or dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • A slow or delayed response to questions
  • Ringing in the ears

This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. Symptoms from a concussion can last anywhere between a few weeks and a few months. Brain damage from a single concussion is generally not permanent–most people will end up making a full recovery. However, repeated or multiple concussions are a different story (generally, it’s a good idea to avoid these).

How do concussions cause tinnitus?

Can a concussion mess with your hearing? Really?

The question of concussions and tinnitus is an interesting one. Because it’s more accurate to say that traumatic brain injuries (even mild ones) can cause tinnitus–it’s not just concussions. Even mild brain injuries can result in that ringing in your ears. Here are a couple of ways that might happen:

  • Damage to your hearing: For members of the armed forces, TBIs and concussions are often caused by proximity to an explosion. And explosions are incredibly loud–the sound and the shockwave can damage the stereocilia in your ear, causing hearing loss and tinnitus. So it’s not so much that the concussion caused tinnitus–it’s that the tinnitus and concussion have the same root cause.
  • Disruption of the Ossicular Chain: There are three bones in your ear that help transmit sounds to your brain. A significant impact (the kind that can cause a concussion, for example) can jostle these bones out of place. This can disrupt your ability to hear and cause tinnitus.
  • A “labyrinthine” concussion: This type of concussion occurs when the inner ear is damaged due to your TBI or concussion. This damage can produce inflammation and lead to both hearing loss and tinnitus.
  • Nerve damage: A concussion may also cause damage to the nerve that is responsible for transferring the sounds you hear to your brain.
  • Disruption of communication: In some cases, the part of your brain that controls hearing can become damaged by a concussion. When this occurs, the signals that get sent from your ear cannot be properly processed–and tinnitus may occur as a result.
  • Meniere’s Syndrome: A TBI can cause the development of a condition called Meniere’s Syndrome. This is caused by the buildup of pressure within the inner ear. Eventually, Meniere’s syndrome can lead to significant tinnitus and hearing loss.

It’s important to emphasize that every traumatic brain injury and concussion is a little different. Every patient should receive individualized care and instructions from your hearing specialist or provider. (Indeed, if you think you have experienced a traumatic brain injury or a concussion, you should get checked out by a medical professional right away.)

How do you treat tinnitus from a concussion?

Most often, tinnitus caused by a concussion or traumatic brain injury will be temporary. How long does tinnitus last after a concussion? Well, it may last weeks or months. However, if your tinnitus has lasted for more than a year, it’s likely to be permanent. In these cases, the treatment strategy transitions to managing your symptoms over the long term.

This can be accomplished by:

  • Therapy: In some cases, therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be used to help patients ignore the noise caused by their tinnitus. You accept that the noise is there, and then ignore it. This technique takes therapy and practice.
  • Masking device: This device is a lot like a hearing aid, only instead of helping you hear things more loudly, it creates a specific noise in your ear. This noise is custom tailored to your tinnitus, drowning out the sound so you can focus on voices–or other sounds you really want to hear.
  • Hearing aid: Sometimes, tinnitus becomes prominent because the rest of the world takes a back seat (as is the case with non-TBI-caused hearing loss–everything else gets quieter, so your tinnitus seems louder). A hearing aid can help turn the volume up on everything else, ensuring that your tinnitus fades into the background.

In some cases, additional therapies may be necessary to achieve the desired result. Treatment of the underlying concussion may be necessary in order to make the tinnitus go away. The right course of action will depend on the nature of your concussion and your TBI. As a result, an accurate diagnosis is incredibly important in this regard.

Talk to your hearing specialist about what the right treatment plan might look like for you.

TBI-caused tinnitus can be managed

A concussion can be a significant and traumatic event in your life. It’s never a good day when you get concussed! And if your ears are ringing, you might ask yourself, why are my ears ringing after a car accident? Or why do I have tinnitus from my car accident?

Tinnitus may emerge immediately or in the days that follow. However, it’s important to remember that tinnitus after a head injury can be successfully managed. So it’s important to talk to your provider or a hearing specialist about your options.

Want to talk to a hearing specialist about your tinnitus? Find a provider today.

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