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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{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Melissa Zanassi September 1, 2012 at 1:08 am

I have to say it’s refreshing to know I’m not going insane, though I don’t have medical at the moment to have my hearing tested. it’s added to an already difficult anxiety issue I have around crowds, the only time I had any relief was last winter I had a bad head cold and my ears were plugged. I noticed in going out that day I didn’t have /as much/ problems though still a small bit. And was actually able to spend an hour and and about on a saturday semi enjoying myself. It’s to the point right now where even the voices of my parents, (my mother who has a lyrical but sometimes high pitched voice will come across sometimes like her nails are scratching across my eardrum and it gives me headaches. Though not all the time. And my dad who’s going partially deaf due to excessive time driving truck and insists on having the TV turned up to where others outside can hear it with all the windoes closed and then will yell into the phones at the same time or just while talking in general. So I’ve had constant headaches for a long time, it’s only been in the last four years I’ve had anyone attribute any of my issues to sound so I’ve been making logs.). Anything you can think of that may help me in dimming these sounds would be helpful, I wear headphones while not even listening to anything just to drown out the noises. When I go to bed I have to have the TV on in my room otherwise the sounds of anyone movinfg around, driving by or a cat going through the leaves will wake me up. Some days, i’ll tell you it’s exc rusiating cause it will delve into migraine mode and when I end up in a house full of people when all I want to do is love myself in a small room an make the world go away.

Did they happen to check to see if youhad any odd growths on the bone behind your eardrum?

avatar Tamara September 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm

First of all, THANK YOU to everyone who has posted here. It seems as if it has taken me forever to find you. And although I wish it was not this difficult challenge that led me to this site, I am thankful beyond muffled, duo-toned words to have found it! This is my third bout with this in the last ten years but by far this is the longest. The first time the funky hearing would come and go over a couple of hours….eventually they diagnosed those as atypical migraines that sit on my auditory nerve. So I went on migraine meds and it helped ALOT. Then I got an attack that was more like whooshing and severe hearing loss…that was a virus that was almost immediately relieved by steroids. This time, I’ve had the distorted hearing for nearly 10 days. So far, the steroids haven’t really helped although some days are better than others. The MRI today showed normal so we are back to the migraine and/or virus prognosis. But this time is very different and in a significant way….I’m not as scared. Admittedly, the first time I thought I was gonna lose it. But this time, I almost feel empowered by the lack of anxiety – although it is irritating! And finding this site where people talk about feeling better and how no one is alone with this leads me back to the beginning. Thank you.
And to echo(pun intended) the words of my predecessors on this page….it does get better! Our bodies have an amazing ability to heal and adapt. Believe it because it’s true…

avatar Todd Bader October 25, 2012 at 2:37 am

Thank you for your post on this issue. I’ve been dealing with the same funky out-of-tune hearing problem for about 15 years, I believe. It is VERY frustrating because I am, ironically, a musician, and it gets me at the worst possible times (sometimes during a performance). I rely on hearing perfect pitches to play and sing perfect pitches, but I have to just temporarily stop playing or singing, if possible, because the sound I’m hearing is awful and inaccurate! Women and children sound like robots, high pitches are like nails on a chalkboard, and my left ear gets very sensitive to loud volumes. I asked a doctor what I might be, but I actually found out more about it by a quick Google search than the costly office visit. It’s nice to know that there are people out there who are in the same position I am. Thanks for your research!

avatar Glynnis November 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm

I’m looking for a cure. Can any one help?

avatar Darcey February 15, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Hi,

I’ve had this for about 10 years in my right ear, I just thought, oh well, 1 ear down 1 to go. And over the last couple of days it got worse again.

In my right ear everything above 6khz is 1/2 volume or lower and constantly feels blocked.

My symptoms and thoughts:

1. Slight imbalancement to the right (it’s in my right ear)

2. Feeling ear is blocked or needs to be yawned open all the time

3. Tried otex, this gave me vertigo and it was much worse after.

4. Doc game me drops, eczema in the ear he said, done nothing, but did remove a blockage on top of what I got already.

5. If I stick my finger in either ear and jiggle it about, both are at same volume?

6. I done a frequency test using winamp (pc music playing software) and some music using the graphic equaliser while having my left ear plugged to keep sound out. 6Khz to 16Khz frequencies is where the trouble starts, the last 3 sliders my right ear can’t hear the difference from min and max on the EQ adjustment.

7. Crystalisation of sound within the frequencies stated in point no 3 – this to me suggests that the sound is passing through something it shouldn’t be or is getting interpreted wrong.

8. If I have a cold or head cold, if I was to hold on to the rubber assist with my right hand of the escalator at the top I could hear everyone whom taps or bangs the rubber assist nearly all the way to the bottom. This is an effect of sound travelling through water / more solid atoms. So it makes me think there is something, a liquid, gel or some substance which shouldn’t be in there somewhere that needs to be removed.

9. Some days I have tinnitus in the frequencies my right ear can no longer hear, and it varies on if I’ve had a bad nights sleep or not. Could it be related to blood pressure? Something pushing on something? I can only assume BP is higher when you wake up feeling like you still need a decent sleep.

And what did the doc say about all this? Nothing we can do about that…

So here I am 10 years later…

Anyone been able to fix this?

Someone mentioned listening to pitches the same pitch as the tinnitus sound in your ear will help, I tried it with a variable pitch signal generator on my right ear and listened to the sound for about 30 mins each day and it did nothing.

There is also tapping techniques, but this is all about focus of your mind and attention trickery, not actually a cure.

Anyone been lucky enough to get this fixed?

avatar Sonia March 24, 2013 at 8:50 am

Hi I woke up this morning thinking 2 of my baby’s were crying 2 find out it was only 1 of them and he sounded so strange at first I panicked trying 2 work out what was wrong with him until I realised it was me then I panicked again, this is such a strange sensation every thing sound echoey and tinny it is giving me a headache nd I have 2 deal with 2 high pitched children which isn’t helping me at all, so glad I found this site it’s helped calm me but as I’m due 2 fly 2 Tunisia in a few wks I hope it’s a short lived problem

avatar Eck April 26, 2013 at 3:34 pm

More tests…. FOR SCIENCE!!!!

Maybe your boyfriend’s voice is different on the phone because you held the phone up to your head and the vibrations traveled through your phone/hand/head. Try holding the phone away from your head the next time he calls. Also try speaker phone and blocking each ear with your finger.

I stumbled across this post because my daughter has a similar issue. We’re heading to the doctor Wed. I hope it’s something like this. :)

- Eck

P.S. My first blog post ever. :P

avatar Hillary June 18, 2013 at 5:28 am

I`m SOO glad I found this post. I really thought I was losing it. It is such a strange sensation it is hard to describe. It has only happened to me twice and only for a couple of hours. I am so tahnkful that it hasn`t been any longer. Bless your souls! It is so annoying! But it was almost worth seeing the look on my husband`s face when I told him that it sounded like a robot was echoing everything out of tune. I do have one question. Does anybody else also hear it when you, yourself, talk?

avatar Niya August 6, 2013 at 11:44 pm

There’s been reports around the world of this.

avatar Shawn August 10, 2013 at 2:09 am

Hey folks,
I posted on here two years ago when this first started happening to my ear. I’m glad to see that this thread is still alive and kicking, this is a gold mine of a find to people who are just starting to experience these frightening symptoms.

As for an update, 30 months later, I still have the buzzing in my ear, and to a lesser extent, the sound distortion. On the upside, it hasn’t gotten worse over time, in fact, I would say it has gotten a little better. Female voices and children don’t sound as shrill as they used to, and the buzzing is less frequent.

When this first started, I never thought I would adjust. It stressed me out so much. I did tireless research on google, and I think that just ended up making my paranoia worse. But now I truly believe in the coping and healing powers of the human body. To those who are worried that it will affect your personality (being a fun and sociable person), you will adjust. I know it sounds impossible now, but eventually you will find ways to cope and even forget about your problem for most of your day. For example, I have a floor fan always running in my room. When this first started, falling asleep was the hardest part. It was impossible to not be aware of the strange noise in my ear. But having a fan on has helped tremendously. Consider getting one if you haven’t yet.

I hope one day it will disappear completely. I will keep you all posted. Thank you Stephanie for this thread!!

PS. Niya, there have been reports? I’m curious to see these. Will you post a link?

avatar Dot August 17, 2013 at 1:19 pm

I too have these robot/’tinny sounds in my left ear when people are talking. especially on the TV. . I find It hard to make out what they are saying. I am hard of hearing in my right ear, but me left ear was OK until I got this. It started a few weeks ago for 3 days then it slowly cleared. I then had it for one day when I was on holiday and thought maybe the music at the entertainment I went to was too loud and had caused it, but after that one day it cleared itself until today when I have it again. I hope it clears as I am going to a family BBQ tomorrow, but find it really hard to make conversation as I can’t make out what people are saying unless they talk looud and slowly.

avatar Ellie October 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Isn’t it awful. I feel like I have a darlek from dr who in my head. People’s voices who I have known for years for instance my parents, now sound like robot strangers. I’m scared I’m never going to be able to speak like me again. I burst my ear drum with a bad chest/ear infection. Since then my right ear has been destroyed with appallingly loud tinnitus and this robotic feedback. I’m in limbo I hate silence as it strengthens my tinnitus yet I hate noise as all I can hear is that awful helium voice. I’m scared, this thing it’s never going to go away or get better. I’m trapped in my own body with some strange alien voice and all I did was suffer a common infection. Life really is over

avatar Anna October 16, 2013 at 7:08 pm

I have all of the same symptoms as most describe except it is my low tones that I am losing. Actually both ears are slowly losing hearing.

I have had all of the testing by numerous specialists, Scan for brain tumor by a neurosurgeon, Vestibular tests and therapy. Lasix for trying to clear any possible inner ear fluid. Have even tried hearing aids. Everything magnifies the heavy sharp sounds in my ears. I tried aids with the amplifier behind the ear against the conductive bone and everything that touched the amplifier, finger, hair glasses, etc., makes a scratching sound.

I am completely whipped. Can’t find a solution but can’t stop looking for a solution.

avatar Rosemary October 23, 2013 at 2:47 am

I had a sinus operation and when I came out of it, my left ear was blocked. I had a hearing test and it wasn’t good. Then a couple of months later, I had another hearing test and my ear seem to unblock and the hearing was acceptable. Since May my left ear has been blocked and now over the last two weeks my tinnitus is through the roof and it feels as if there is a blockage there. I am going bananas about this and don’t know what to do.

avatar Deborah November 30, 2013 at 6:03 pm

It was very helpful to find this thread. Many thanks to you, Stephanie, for taking a thoughtful approach to your problem and to sharing it. And to everybody else for keeping the conversation going.

I woke up last Saturday morning with an echo in my right ear. I was (and still am) hearing high frequency sounds both when they occur and again about (to my best estimate) about a tenth of a second later. It makes my six-year-old daughter’s voice especially challenging to listen to :-( I ignored it for the first few days because my husband said he’d had something similar a few days earlier that just went away on its own. But my mom was visiting and she insisted that I see a doctor. So I did. That was two days before Thanksgiving. My regular doctor wasn’t available so I was seen by her colleague at the clinic. I’d say that visit was useless, except that doc’s surprise at my symptom made me think I might have something rare and worth worrying about. He recommended I see an ENT, but conveyed no urgency, so the clinic offered me an appointment 3 weeks out. I decided I didn’t want to live with the echo for 3 weeks, and I had a bit of cash left in my FSA, so I looked up an ENT on the internet using ZocDoc and booked myself an appointment for the next day.

Now that was a useful thing to have done! The ENT first pressed around my head and determined that I had no sinus issues. Then he held a tuning fork in front of each ear, and determined that I could hear equally well in both ears that way. Then he held the tuning fork to the bone behind each ear, and I was surprised that I was unable to hear the fork when placed behind my left ear! Finally he threaded a fiberoptic up my nose, through my sinuses (no pain, felt kind of like an annoying booger), took a look at the opening to my left eustachian tube, and determined that everything looked good. He suspected Sudden Sensorineuronal Hearing Loss but said he would require a complete Audiogram and tympanogram to make the diagnosis. He conveyed some mild urgency, but it was close to 5pm on the day before Thanksgiving and there were no audiologists to be found. In retrospect, I could and maybe should have pressed him to hook me up with someone, but I had traveled about 1 hr from home to see him, and he didn’t have any contacts close to where I live, so I decided to head home and do my best to arrange a test for myself. I searched for audiologists on google maps, called the one closest to my home and booked an appointment for the following Wednesday (their first available) with a request to be called on Monday if anything opened up.

That night, unable to sleep, I found/read this blog and read about SSNHL on the website of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Institute (http://www.masseyeandear.org/for-patients/patient-guide/patient-education/diseases-and-conditions/sudden-deafness/), which convinced me of the urgency of the situation. The website was particularly clear: sudden onset of hearing loss/anomoly constitutes a “true ear emergency”. This emboldened me to call/e-mail the audiologist I’d booked the following (Thanksgiving!) morning, asking for a more timely appointment. When I didn’t hear back before noon on Thanksgiving, I decided I’d have to be more aggressive, and called nearly all the audiologists in my area. (Most have yet to get back to me.) By 1 pm, I was noticing a low-pitched hum in my left ear, so I picked one audiologist (the only one with a PhD in our area, which I thought a good distinguishing characteristic for someone likely to be sympathetic to an obscure condition), looked him up in the white pages, called him at home and begged him to test me or refer me to someone who would. Bless his heart, he answered my plea and agreed to test my hearing the following day. I let my ENT know (by leaving a message at his office number) and managed to enjoy an echo-y thanksgiving dinner.

The audiologist was perfectly thorough and kind. (I took care to be ahead of time for my appointment and bought a couple high-quality chocolate bars to leave behind as an expression of my gratitude. ) The hearing test confirmed a neuronal basis for my hearing loss, with a strange profile, reduced by 40dB in the high and low frequencies, normal in the mid-range. The tympanogram was normal in the left ear but, strangely, showed unusually low pressure in the right ear. The audiologist gave me a copy of my results and I asked for his recommendations of a local ENT who I might go to for a second opinion.

After I left his office, I realized that my ENT had called during the hearing test, leaving a message on my cell, hoping to talk to the audiologist directly about my test results (a sign of a good doctor in my opinion! I have to say, my experience with doctors on ZocDoc has been 2/2 so far.) I went back and caught the audiologist before he’d left to let him know and he said the ENT could call him at home to discuss, so I left a message with the audiologists home phone number on the ENT’s voicemail. After they connected, the ENT called me to get my pharmacy info and sent in a prescription for prednisone.

So that’s where I am right now. Just started prednisone about 12 hours ago. No noticeable change in my hearing yet. I booked a follow up with the ENT for monday. Will post here, if nobody minds. Feels both like giving back, and like a good way to keep track for myself.

For any of the technically minded, I’ve also found two good articles in the primary medical literature: one on SSNHL published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008 by Rauch (a Harvard MD specializing in the subject), and one on coriticosteroid treatments of SSNHL from a specialty journal published in 2012. The latter isn’t really useful for the lay-person, but for a fellow scientist it is interesting to see/appreciate how little is known for certain, and how difficult it is to figure out what is really going on and improve treatments. Despite the present uncertainty and slim prospects for progress on a time scale that will improve my condition, I personally find it heartening to know there are serious researchers out there trying to tackle the problem in a rigorous way.

avatar Sandra December 29, 2013 at 2:52 am

I was doing an online search for some information hoping that it would help me come to grips with a hearing problem I have. It is strange – mine, that is.

I have no headaches, no nausea, no dizziness, no physical discomfort at all. None. It happens only sporadically, not consistent to time or place.

What happens is that occasionally when I am talking with a person and he/she is telling me something, suddenly their voice sounds are garbled – I can hear the sounds but they make no sense. When this episode passes I can understand clearly. I have noticed this is more likely to happen when I am on the phone listening with my left ear. When it happens I will move the receiver to my right ear and there is no problem. This problem is not always present, just now and then. I do not have any other physical or mental, or emotional problems – although I am getting a tad bit disturbed with these episodes wondering if I am going crazy, I am healthy, 66 years old.

Anybody hear of anything like this before? I would love to know…

avatar raj January 19, 2014 at 5:57 am

hi…I am 28 now, i had tinnitus in my left ear with a complete hearing loss at the age of 15 ..my right ear was good and efficient, i had problems like i always walk being on the left side of a person, sit to the left of friends, i cant decide a approaching sounds direction either and for tinnitus the buzzing sound has become a part of life i learned to live with it….but from last 2 days i hear the sounds robotic in my right ear ….like any woofer sounds or a distant sounds sound robotic to me…however i dont have any problem when i speak over the phone or when i plug in my ear phone…i am afraid that do i have to loose my only hearing ear?? really worried !

avatar S.goa January 21, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Dear All… I had similar problem where i heard a robotic mixed tone when hearing through my right ear. The tone was more profound while hearing a woman’s voice than a man’s. I do not know the solution to this but personally, for me, the situation rectified itself in 4 months after regularly cleaning my ear and removing as much wax out as possible. Hope this helps.

avatar David February 2, 2014 at 2:07 am

I lost my hearing in about 30 minutes. I have worn a hearing aid in my right ear and the technician turned the sound on it wide open to try to stimulate the ear. Everything sounds like a robot or digital signal. The ENT I go to say that there is not a thing he can do about it. I hope someone comes up with a solution., but with a hearing aid everything sounds like a robot.

avatar Marie February 12, 2014 at 9:21 pm

I had the same issue and was told I had an infection. I was put on 10 days of the antibiotic Biaxin and it definitely got better. I am on day 8 now and just had a visit to the osteopath but for whatever reason after hearing great after the treatment, the sounds and high pitch sounds have gotten worse. I am so depressed as I was feeling so much better in general. I have yet to try the steroid spray the doctor gave me and told me to use if I felt like I had reached a plateau on the antibiotic. I may try that next….

avatar Daniel April 8, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Hey, I just came home from my job and suddenly everything sounds muffled in my left ear and when people talk I sometimes hear a high pitch whistle, also if I whistle I hear my original one plus a higher pitch one. I read the posts here but was wondering if others would give me an idea of what I should do :/

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