Do You Hear That? Tinnitus and Hearing Loss: The Unexpected Consequences of Your Airbag Deploying

Imagine you’ve just gotten into your car. You turn it on and BOOM your airbag deploys for no reason. Or, your car hits a pothole and BANG your airbag explodes from the steering wheel.

crash-test-1620608_1920-thumb-250x166-86090During accidents, airbags save lives – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that frontal airbags saved 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008. But, what about when an airbag deploys for no reason? Car manufacturers have had to recall car and truck models because the airbags inexplicably deployed. When that happens, there are major risks associated with your airbags, including risks to your hearing.

In an accident, your airbag needs to deploy in the milliseconds between when the airbag controller senses a collision and when you slam into the steering wheel. In order to do this, the airbag has to deploy with explosive force, at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. That generates a lot of noise.

That’s where your ears come in. An airbag can generate a sound pressure of 178 decibels, which is over 20% higher than the level that can cause permanent hearing loss. And, more than 90% of individuals will be at risk for hearing disorders when airbags deploy. Injuries can include hearing loss, vertigo, ruptured eardrums, and episodic dizziness, but one of the most common ear injuries following an airbag deployment is tinnitus.

Tinnitus is the perception of noise or ringing in the ears. It can be temporary following an airbag deployment or permanent. In some cases, the sound can be so loud it interferes with a person’s ability to concentrate or to hear external noises. Doctors consider tinnitus to be a symptom of an underlying condition, but, in many cases, the exact cause cannot be determined or treated. A common, known cause of tinnitus is inner ear hair cell damage. Tiny hairs in your ears detect changes in pressure and send electric signals to your brain, which interprets those signals as noise. Both short and long-term exposure to loud noises can bend or break those little hairs.  If that happens, the damaged hairs can cause random electrical impulses to be sent to the brain, causing the ringing or humming noise characteristic of tinnitus. Tinnitus treatment may include identifying the underlying cause or just masking the noise.

Tinnitus and airbags are so linked that, when the rule for mandatory airbags was first introduced, the President of the National Hearing Conservation Association opposed it. She wrote the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1997 explaining that the high sound levels can cause permanent hearing loss and tinnitus in noise-sensitive individuals. She was concerned that the rule forced noise-sensitive individuals to be exposed to the risk of tinnitus.

Her concerns were well-founded. According to a 1998 study, out of 20 patients with ear damage following airbag deployment, 17 reported tinnitus, with 11 cases being in one ear and 6 cases being in both ears. A 1999 report documented hearing loss and persistent tinnitus in two individuals following airbag deployment. Both people were in low-speed accidents, where the accidents themselves could not explain the injuries, suggesting a link between the airbags and tinnitus. A 2002 study found that, out of 66 ear injuries following airbag deployment, 52 of those injuries were tinnitus. Additionally, side airbags produce an even higher chance of ear injury, since the explosion is immediately next to the ear. That side airbag is essentially a shotgun going off next to your head.

And, tinnitus can have serious consequences. It can significantly impact a sufferer’s quality of life. People with tinnitus may experience fatigue, stress, sleep problems, trouble concentrating, memory problems, depression, and anxiety, all caused by having a persistent noise in their ears.

In a serious accident, risking tinnitus is worth it if an airbag saves your life. But you shouldn’t be exposed to this risk by a faulty airbag that deploys for no reason. If you or a loved one is suffering from tinnitus or hearing loss following an improper airbag deployment, contact our personal injury attorneys for a free and confidential case evaluation at: 630-527-1595. Our legal team can help you determine if you have a case.

Blog written by Dayna Smith.

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