According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) every year roughly 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. Victims often end up dazed and confused. They may complain of dizziness and headaches and come down with memory and/or concentration issues. The diagnosis is often given as a “concussion,” the symptoms of which vary greatly in intensity and duration.
However, sudden blows and jolts to the head may not only cause brain trauma but can also lead to serious ear damage. Traumatic ear injuries are derived from various types of insults. Our veterans can attest to the auditory consequences due to sudden, extreme sound pressure waves from gun shots and explosive devices.
In everyday life, however, it is more common to sustain ear damage due to closed head trauma from shocks during car and industrial accidents, sports mishaps and falls. As far as the ears are concerned, temporal (side of the head) hits and temporal bone fractures or fissures are particularly worrisome. The ear lies protected within the recesses of the temporal bone and the hearing portion of the brain, the auditory cortex, is located in the temporal lobe. It makes sense therefore that blunt force to these areas endangers the delicate ear structures and their complex nerve connections to the brain.
Although brain-jarring events can affect any part of the ear, specialists often look toward inner-ear injuries sustained in “labyrinthine” (inner-ear) concussions for tracking some of the symptoms that often accompany TBI. These may include – not amazingly – dizziness, vertigo, nausea and vomiting, balance problems, hearing loss, tinnitus, noise sensitivities and blurred vision.
It can take a long time – weeks to months – for balance issues and dizziness to resolve. If symptoms linger, vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT) may be necessary. Will the hearing loss and tinnitus ever improve? This is a good question. As I have been told so many times, “only time will tell.”
After suffering head trauma patients need savvy professionals who evaluate the nature and the extent of the injury; who distinguish between ear-related and brain-related symptoms; who do the appropriate tests to tell the difference and who can guide them in an often lengthy recovery.
Certainly, everyday life holds plenty of opportunities for us to sustain head bumps, but in many instances we are able to protect ourselves, at least to some degree. It is important to wear seatbelts in the car in order to minimize the chances of banging the head on the steering wheel or against the windshield in case of an accident or sudden stop. Properly fitted and fastened helmets are must-haves for riding bikes and motorcycles and during contact sports, such as ice hockey or football. Parents must teach their children the purpose of protective gear, the possible consequences of foregoing it and the correct way to wear it.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson “as soon as there is life there is danger.” While that is true, it is also true that some forethought and a good dose of common sense might help save our brains as well as our ears.
MedLink Neurology: Inner Ear Concussion. Clinical summary