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.

Results:

  • 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

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{ 102 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 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.”

avatar 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.

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