Why can’t I hear right? Stephanie researches her ears.

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 12, 2010

[[NOTE:  The update on my symptoms and the resulting diagnosis is in the comments if you’re curious.  I get a lot of comments on this post asking for updates, so please look in the comments for the answer!]]

I’ve had the most distressing symptoms over the past week, which sparked my biophysics curiosity.  At first I thought that I was just groggy and out of sorts.  Then I realized that my head didn’t just feel like it was stuffed with cotton, it sounded like it was stuffed with cotton.  I felt disoriented, my head was a bit stuffy, and things didn’t sound quite right.  I was talking to my boyfriend on the phone, and I asked him, “Are you OK?  You sound really weird.”  He sounded like he had a really bad head cold.  He swore he was fine.  He sounded fine when I talked to him in person.  Talking to him on the phone later, he sounded strange again.

Ever the scientist, I realized I needed to try varying some parameters.  I switched the phone to my other ear.  He sounded fine.  Back to my left ear:  He sounded like his nose was plugged.  Back to my right ear:  Normal.  So, there was something odd about my left ear.  It seemed to be cutting out all the high frequencies.  Am I becoming deaf to high frequencies in my left ear?

Later, I go to the climbing gym.  There are many small children laughing.  The high tones in their voices sound weird, mechanical, and like they’re vibrating in the very back of my left ear.  Everything with a high pitch has a mechanical whine that sounds like it’s coming from behind my left shoulder.  Disconcerting.  Weird. And seemingly totally at odds with my observation that my left ear is cutting out the high frequencies on the phone.

I start to notice how different men’s and women’s voices differ.  Men’s voices sound mostly normal.  Women’s voices create that mechanical buzz and are difficult to listen to.  Ambient sound has similar high-pitched buzzes.  I’ve developed my own internal high-frequency monitoring device.  I’m less than thrilled.

So, I go to the doctor to find out what the heck is going wrong with me.  He’s totally gorgeous, a nice perk in the midst of my health troubles.  More science ensues.  He taps a tuning fork on the table and holds it by my left ear (the one that’s acting strangely).  I wince with the loudness of the sound.  He taps it again and holds it against the bone behind my ear.  Is it louder then?  No.  He does the same with my right ear.


  • When the tuning fork is held next to my ear, it’s louder in my left than the right
  • When the tuning fork is held on the bone behind my ear, it’s similar loudness in both ears.

So, what’s that mean?  Because it sounds the same when the sound is traveling through my bone rather than through the air, that means that there’s nothing wrong with my auditory nerve (whew!)  But it sounds different when traveling through the air, so that means that something is selectively amplifying the high frequencies as they travel from the air to my auditory nerve.

Apparently what’s wrong is that my eustachian tubes are blocked, creating a high pressure area inside the canals of my ear.  Usually I could clear my ears (getting that “pop”) to equalize the pressure, but if it’s swollen (like if you have a cold) then it’s hard to get my ears to pop.

What struck me about all this experimentation was just how much the scientific method came into play — observe, test, try changing variables, compare.  You can find out a lot just by thoughtfully testing different parameters.

The cute doctor didn’t have much to say about why this caused the odd pitch distortions, so I batted my eyes at him and went off to do my own research.

First, what about when I hear the odd buzzing amplification of high pitched sounds in the air? In that case, the sound must travel through the air to the tympanic membrane, or eardrum.  The eardrum is what transfers the sound from the air to the little bones of the ear (the hammer, anvil and stirrup).  If the eustachian tube is swollen, that restricts the movement of the eardrum.  But that seems like it would reduce my sensitivity to high frequencies, not increase it.  Perhaps, instead, the high pitched vibrations of the eardrum are somehow amplified, maybe via a resonance.  Perhaps the swollen eustachian tube has tuned my hearing to be more sensitive to higher pitches than the normal human ear?

Apparently there is a rare condition where, instead of the tube being swollen shut, the tube is left open, which allows the sound of your own breathing and heartbeat to move from the body directly to the eardrum, so you hear the amplified echo of your own voice and breath.  (Strange medical note:  A new procedure to relieve those symptoms involves placing a small piece of Blu-Tack on the eardrum to muffle the sounds.  “The Blu-Tack has to be replaced at regular intervals,” says Wikipedia.  Ugh.  I guess I could have it worse.

What about when I talk on the phone, and my boyfriend sounded like he had a cold because all the high frequencies were reduced?  In that case, I think, the sound is traveling partially through the air and partially through the bones of my skull. A dampening of the movement of the eardrum by the swollen eustachian tube might explain that (though it wouldn’t explain why the same isn’t true when I’m not talking on the phone, as above).  Or, perhaps, the high-frequency sensitivity only happens with frequencies that are not contained in my boyfriend’s voice.  Perhaps some high frequencies are being amplified, and the rest are cut out?

Obviously, I haven’t managed to find an ultimate answer to my queries.  If anybody has any ideas, or insider knowledge, please share.  This has made me very curious.  If I’m going to be suffering, I might as well learn something new about my body!

Image: Perception Space—The Final Frontier, A PLoS Biology Vol. 3, No. 4, e137 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030137 ([1]/[2]), vectorised by Inductiveload


Dan February 22, 2015 at 2:27 am

I finally got tired of just putting up with it and began researching myself to see if there is any relation of sinusitis and hearing blockage, thus finding this page.
I was finally able to see an Obama-doc thinking I had the flu or some other bug that just wasn’t going away as it normally would for me after a few days. But with the bare minimum care or attention provided that way with a 10-second exam and no tests done of any kind, he was rather quick to decide that I had sinus & bronchial infections with the stated symptoms of head pressure and wheezing cough..and nevermind the hearing issue since I wasn’t clogged with wax there. He then prescribed me Sudafed and 10-day antibiotics.
A week into it, no change whatsoever and I’m not convinced that’s the only issue and is what’s causing my additional sudden hearing problems. My wife thinks I’m talking mean or mad at times now when I simply cannot speak normally at all with no airflow through my nose. Try pinching ‘yer nose closed and talk without sounding weird or even angry if having to talk louder than what seems (to me) to be normal conversational volume. It can’t be done or at least not easily for me anyway.
I can still very much hear things, like if scratching the top of my head… and even scratching my nose or chin sounds loud. I can hear those noises very loudly but yet it seems like I have sound-proof plugs in my ears blocking most all external sound & noise like from the TV or another person in the room. I can’t even hear myself tapping the ‘puter keyboard to type this now.
I sound like Darth Vader inside my own head in hearing myself breathe and my own voice seems loud to me while others are saying I am now talking too quietly and I’m even being accused of doing it intentionally. I can hear someone’s voice to a point, but cannot identify the pronunciation of the words. Everyone sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher…whahaawwahaah. I can’t hear the high frequencies yet I have a constant rolling high pitch Eeeee sound as well and it’s getting ever louder and is simply driving me nutz!!
Apparently this is a common enough issue to have an answer to the problem. Are there any doctors that will openly claim to be an expert at anything they do? I have yet to be convinced of any doctor actually seeking to so their job correctly the first time without guessing; “try this, and pay me as leave.” Then later, “Oh that didn’t work, let’s try this now..and be sure to pay me again as you leave.”
I will gladly pay any expert for their services, but have very strong issues with paying for guesses and those that are hiding behind the claim of “just practicing.”

Christopher McAlpine February 22, 2015 at 7:54 pm

Hi Dan,
Well I have Meniere’s and have experienced significant damage in hearing on both sides. Here’s my advice:

Don’t inject politics into your healthcare, your only setting yourself up for frustration and aggravation. Neither side cares about your individual health.
Democrats set up minimal care healthplans, while Republicans slash all funding and state “people should exhibit more personal responsibility for their well being”….the point is neither side is particularly helpful.

For myself, western allopathic medicine has not been helpful in regards to hearing loss…and it is because western allopathic medicine is just beginning to understand how the ear works, and is clueless in how to treat it.
You have to be willing to step outside of “only a doctor would know what is wrong and what to do” type of mindset. All the ENT’s that I have seen, (over ten so far) are completely at a loss in regards to hearing loss…all they say is to go see an “Audiologist”. They are more concerned with if there is an infection, and how it affects balance.

There are other forms of medicine that western medicine does not acknowledge, but have proven to be useful and effective. Accupuncture/Chinese Medicine/ Chiropractic/vitamin & supplement therapy…all have their own specific merits.
Western doctors are going to tell you to not waste your time. But why deprive yourself if one of these turns out to be the remedy you need? The point is to keep an open mind and be optimistic.

The fact you can hear in your head (‘scratching the top of head or nose etc’) is good, it means that you have bone-conduction hearing…which means that you still have hearing…if it was real hearing loss, you would not be able to hear any scratching. So keep thinking positive.

It could be allergies or sinus issues.
Have you tried some really spicy food to make your sinus run? Not just eating some tacos with hot sauce, but something very spicy with intent to MAKE your sinus drain. Like: wasabi, some thai soup Tom Ka at 4+ stars, or spicy curry…it’s not to enjoy…it’s to make your nose flow profusely.

One other point to make:
Be cautious and overprotective of any exposure to loud sounds. Your ears are experiencing something…so don’t stress them more by running power tools, vacuums, blenders, loud music headphones, speakers, concerts….anything.
Once your hearing is gone, its forever…so protect it.
Keep hearing protectors near at all times, carry earplugs.

Ben March 3, 2015 at 7:22 pm

I have exactly the same issue as you and i’m dying to get it sorted as i work in lighting and sound for shows. It’s bugged me for years. I live my life practically in mono.

Angiella Estopace March 4, 2015 at 12:27 pm


hmm…i know you guys would tell me that i should have gone to the ENT..but i didn’t do it. I’m very afraid to tell my mom, and i’m still saving money for consulting the doctor. So, during these 3 weeks i guess, i lessen going to noisy places. and even in our house, i’m making the environment very quiet. When i’m listening to music with my earphones, i decreased the volume to 10, even the speakers. (during the 1st and 2nd week, my ears hurt if i’m hearing loud sounds, even loud voices) I’m now also using earplugs whenever i ride buses and in noisy and loud places. I can’t help being at those places because i’m playing instruments at our church.

but you know, there’s an amazing thing happened. the two tones that i’m hearing and that robotic sound, disappeared. i felt like my hearing is normal again. but i still make the volumes and speakers at low sounds, and i’m still wearing my earplugs.

hmm…is this a possibility that my hearing wasn’t damaged, like those having tinnitus?

…now i’m taking this as a healing from God. i will still save money, so that i could still consult to the ENT to protect my ear from that kind of incident again.

Joyce March 14, 2015 at 6:21 pm

I’m sick I have a runny nose and one of my ears are weird. I can hear myself talk louder and other people or things that make noise I don’t hear them as loud as I did when I wasn’t sick. This keeps switching one ear to the other. After I’m not sick it goes away, but this never happened to me until now. This happened twice. I really want to know why this is happening to me. It’s kinda freaking me out. Please e-mail me.

Angiella Estopace March 17, 2015 at 11:54 am

@joyce maybe that’s a clogged ear?

juan castillo March 23, 2015 at 4:28 am

My left ear is lower than my right ear when in talk on the phone I hear good on the lrifgt on the left I hear low it sounds like if some one puts me on speaker but there far from the phone like if they pulled the phone away but when I hold my nose to pop my ears I hear great on both then mins later back low what is wrong with my hearing do I have wax clogged up cause I hear a wax sound when it pops

Georgianna Heimerl April 16, 2015 at 6:11 pm

Hi Everyone Im in the process of getting some kind of diagnosis for my Hyperacusis symptom. Im deaf in my leaf ear for 12 years now & now Im having symptoms of hyperacusis for 16 months now. Ive been wearing noise canceling headphones on & off in the meantime. I can even hear myself swallow when there off. I wish it would all go away so I can get my life back to eating in restaurants being outside. I swear Ive been exposed to noise pollution. Does anyone agree with me? Georgi

annette May 25, 2015 at 7:28 pm

My ears have been feeling plugged for about a week and a half. At first i thought it was my cold but my symptoms are gone and my ears are still plugged. I dont know if i should see a dr or just wait it out. Because it is now both ears.

Hong July 8, 2015 at 12:20 am

I have left ear, it happened three times, I saw ENT Dr. gave me three injections in the ear ($6000), no luck, last time I asked Dr. “no more injection, give me medicine”, it fixed, my ears worked normal for 6 months, now it come back again. I don’t know what to do. may be see ENT again. Anyone has any idea?

Anthoni muchahary July 11, 2015 at 7:02 am

I am 20 years old and i can’t hear with my right ear. Please suggest me a solution.

Teresa Hecke Heeter Posey September 10, 2015 at 2:17 pm

This is the only Email address I can ? find right now my brain is not working right now I do know that this is my Google account

Teresa Hecke Heeter Posey September 10, 2015 at 2:23 pm

I don’t I think think that I haven’t set on up yet and could you please tell me what apps go to Google so I can write them down so I don’t have to keep making up different address for each account I have to go and cook some eggs and I’ll come right back Thanks

June McHale September 25, 2015 at 2:08 pm

I had a bit of wax in my ear and decided to get it removed. Went to a new ENT in town and he sat me down and immediately went into my ear with his little metal scoop. I have had wax removed before and they usually put drops or some liquid in the ears to soften the was. Now this guy. I told him he was hurting me but he kept right on digging and finally said “I’m glad it’s hurting. It shows I’m getting it”. He transferred to my left ear and dug wax out of there too. I went home and when I got there said hello to my dogs and couldn’t believe the sound of my own voice. It sounded tinny and like I was talking into a tin can. I went back to the doctor a week later and he said “you’ve been deaf so long you don’t know what sound should sound like”. I wasn’t deaf when I went to him to begin with. I have seen another ENT and he says there isn’t anything he can do and I should just hope it will heal itself in time. I took antibiotics and steroids but they didn’t help. Guess I will have to live with this.

Geoff November 13, 2015 at 6:13 am

Sorry to hear that June. There are lots of good doctors out there but some just aren’t sensitive to patients and some are not good with their hands at all. (I work in healthcare). A shame that people often need a third opinion. Two weeks ago I was told by one doc that I had a ruptured eardrum. I wanted a second opinion and the next doc said I had an ear infection but no rupture. The good news is that the inner ear and eardrum have a great capacity to heal by themselves. It just takes time. Hoping yours is fixed by now.

Dawn November 21, 2015 at 12:03 am

Then let me know this:
Do you feel like you have more than average tension your neck/shoulder muscles?

– Does your hobby or job make you do a repetetive movement? (like playing the violin, intense computer work, screwing screws all day long etc)

– Do you feel like yu have a poor blood circulation?

– Would you say that you clench/grind your teeth against your will during your sleep? (Has your dentist mentioned it to you?)


A poster asked this in 2011 and yes to all! I haven’t had a cold per se. Have felt post nasal drip here and there since this started 3 weeks ago. My daughter has had a runny nose for weeks and weeks. Got better for a couple now it’s back. I had this for a few days two weeks ago, it improved, now it’s back.

The lymph node behind my ear is very painful when pressed. All noises are amplified. Nothing muffled. At it’s worst eveything sounds magnified with a surrounding area to it…and every sound feels like it pulsars through the ear. High pitched tones are painful.. As is a deep bass.

Very annoying. Some off balance or lightheadedness with it on and off too

Georgi Heimerl November 30, 2015 at 3:48 pm

Hi Dawn, I’m Georgi. I’m sorry to here ur having such difficulties. I hope u can get some help soon. I’ve been deaf in my left ear for 14 years. I’ve also developed Hyperacusis in my right ear. I’m going to see an audiologist today. Sometimes I get tinnitus in my left ear now. For Petes sake there’s got to be a reason for my ear issues. On & off I temporarily use white noise to muffle sounds that annoy me. Rustling papers, my kitties licking themselves. To also high pitched sounds. We even had to surrender our pet doves cause their high pitched chirps. Drove me bonkers. I hope u can get the help you need & good luck?Georgi

Chris February 20, 2016 at 11:00 pm

Ensure that ALL environments are SMOKE FREE, where toxic tobacco smoke will never be allowed to poison you and/or anyone else.

Exposure to toxic tobacco smoke causes “glue ear” and other hearing maladies, like emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease and so many other problems.

Smoke free is the way to be! Make it so everywhere!

Debbie DINATALE March 5, 2016 at 7:44 am

think it does sound
Robotic at times. Vowels have
ALIEN reverb.I do have
Chronic SINUSITIS. Migraineheadaches
BADLY. NAUSEA,fever,miserable,,unsettling feeling.
Experienced WILD Jagged Halos in perifial vision.
COLORFUL and moving waves.that is gone.
FeelingWORSE. 5 days antibiotics hasn’t
Fazed it.can’t SMELL or taste.
Feeling GOOFY.really funny STUFF though.
LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY at times. Joint./tooth
PAIN.not HUNGRY. FEELS LIKE I’m losing it.
Can’t STOP giggling
HELP THANX to All. Peace LOVE and JOY. I’m a singer too

Debbie DINATALE March 5, 2016 at 7:45 am

Did it WORK?

Bill Wilson September 26, 2016 at 11:32 pm

I got a rather nasty sinus infection on my left side. It felt, at first like a a tooth acke but then migrated up to under mt left eye. After five days the swelling has gone down. The pain has gone away. I feel like sleeping a-lot and have had a low fever for the last five days. My eyes are somewhat sensative to light. — But my head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton, I have this constant low volume high pitch ringing in my ears ( tinitus ) , people sound like chipmunks when they are talking , Eustation Tubes must be really blocked , At times when I focus on just the “Ringing” eveything else gets drowned out and thus the world seems “eerily quite”, Well that’s nice if you “Really Want Quite” , But I don’t want to be def, So I am taking every decongestant and anti-histamine and anti-biotic to kick this damn thing. Good thing now is that I can just get my ear to pop a-little so maybe the eustation tubes are getting un-stuck, Pray For Me… God Bless You – ( http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com ) – You Rock!

Lah November 3, 2016 at 9:15 pm

I have been fighting this same problem for years. Sometimes it would last a couple of weeks; other times it would last for months. Eventually it would go away. It seems to happen around the Fall. October and November more specifically. I usually plug the ear affected (used to be left, now occurs in both) with cotton or earplugs to even out the pressure and to muffle the noises that cause irritation to my ears (shuffling paper, TV, Heating and air conditioning blowers, etc.) I went to an ENT and he did all the audiologist tests and checked my ears and found nothing to indicate why this was happening. His ultimate conclusion was that I had Endolymphatic Hydrops which affects the inner ear. He prescribed water pills and with the ear plugs, it seemed to help until the symptoms went away. I continue to get this but plug my ears when I first start feeling the effects and it seems to help the flare up last for a shorter time. I hope this might help some of you.

Gloria Phillips February 19, 2017 at 7:09 pm

I have Tinnitus Hypercucusis, too just all is high pitched, like the chipmunks, or a record played on the wrong speed, too fast…..I see a Geogianna Heimerl had it, too, did you find a cure?
Please answer if anyone has these terrible symptons..I do not go out at all, everything is high pitched and loud noises make me jump…
I am loosing weight, not eating, and my hearing aid doc is just after the money, she sold me some aids again, and won’t help me with them, went to a specialist and he told me to go back to her and MAKE her fix my hearings, and find me aids that work, with no more charge since I paid so much for the new ones.I am at my wits end…these high pitch voices just in my head are driving me crazy…hollowness started in 2014, and my audiolist just wanted me to get new aids..I finally did, from her, cause I thought they would be better, and both the old and the new ones are useless..going back on Monday to see her.

Jara February 28, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Have you explored possibility of jaw misalignment (TMD) causing your ear symptoms? I discovered after years of ENTs who told me to live with these symptoms, that my jaw was compressing my ear. I had NO jaw pain ever. I am now treating (not a quick road) but things are improving. Wondering if anyone has been down this road as well?

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