Q: My husband was involved in a pretty serious automobile accident where the airbag deployed. He is very lucky to be alive and walked away from the accident with what we thought was little harm. I took him right away to the emergency room for an examination even though EMS evaluated him on the scene. By the time we arrived at the hospital, he started to complain that he felt like he had tinnitus. My question is, could the airbag be the cause of his tinnitus?
A: First of all, I’m thankful your husband did not suffer greater injuries. I have to concur that airbags can definitely cause tinnitus along with hearing loss and other complications. In September of 1998, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency went into law requiring that all cars sold in the United States have air bags installed. Of course, it has been successful at reducing the rate of deaths and severity of injuries over the years. To get back to your question, though, yes, airbags do have effects when deployed.
The most common complaints are hearing loss and tinnitus. The type of hearing loss varies from a loss in one ear to bilateral hearing loss, conductive hearing loss (affecting the outer or middle ear), mixed hearing loss (affecting the outer, middle, and inner ear), or even sensorineural hearing loss (affecting the inner ear), also known as nerve loss.
Physical injury could occur to the eardrum (tympanic membrane), causing a perforation or hole in the eardrum. If that happens, a hearing loss may develop, and if the perforation does not heal on its own, surgical intervention may be required to patch the tympanic membrane. A study performed by the Michigan Ear Institute found that the orientation of the ear toward the airbag was associated with the hearing loss, aural fullness, and tympanic membrane perforation.
Sometimes if more than one airbag is deployed, the volume of the noise increases and may be louder than if you were standing outside an airplane without ear protection. It has also been thought that it causes more pressure, thereby increasing the risk of a perforation to the tympanic membrane.
The concern I have is that people may not notice the hearing loss or tinnitus or fail to seek help for a mild hearing loss or tinnitus. If the hearing loss is in the range above the speech frequency range, it may not be apparent to the individual right away, so they don’t seek help. We always try to encourage our patients to let us know of even a slight change in their hearing or tinnitus after any kind of event. Be aware that if a hearing loss is temporary from an airbag deployment, you will probably note an improvement within a few hours according to documented studies.
I hope you find this information helpful. Be cognizant of the injury your husband sustained and seek medical attention, including a hearing test since the tinnitus cannot be treated without determining whether a hearing loss exists. And, as always, if we are able to answer any of your concerns, please do not hesitate to call Northwest Ohio Hearing Clinic.
Randa Mansour-Shousher, AuD, CCC-A, is a Doctor of Audiology with Northwest Ohio Hearing Clinic, located at 1125 Hospital Dr., Suite 50 in Toledo (419-383-4012) and 1601 Brigham Dr., Suite 160 in Perrysburg (419-873-4327).