MRI Testing with Tinnitus or Hyperacusis

Frequently Asked Question

My doctor recommends an MRI test, but I’m afraid the loudness will make my hyperacusis or tinnitus worse. What should I do?

General Answer

Doctors don’t make MRI referrals unless testing is important for a person’s healthcare. Always discuss any concerns with the referring doctor.

MRI testing can cause hearing loss, tinnitus, or hyperacusis. In 2018, scientists found noise levels of modern MRI machines are extremely high. Recommended public health daily noise exposure limits are a maximum dose of <2 minutes of unprotected exposure to 100 dB.

MRI machines have average noise like a jackhammer or chainsaw loudness (110 to 115 dB), and peak or max noise as loud as gunfire (130 dB). The stronger the magnetic field from the MRI machine, the higher the noise, and the higher the risk of temporary or permanently impaired hearing health. This is a serious concern, especially for people who need more than one MRI over time.

Experts now recommend double hearing protection during MRI testing: MRI-safe earmuffs over MRI-safe earplugs. Many MRI clinics now offer double hearing protection to patients.

When using double hearing protection, people usually can’t hear instructions, but typically you must remain completely still.

Even when using double hearing protection, people with hyperacusis or decreased sound tolerance might still have pain or discomfort during the MRI. The loud testing could flare up hyperacusis or tinnitus, and some people report new tinnitus or hyperacusis after MRI testing.

I always expect my tinnitus and hyperacusis to get worse or flare up temporarily after a loud activity or event. When that happens, it usually settles down after a few days, but it can take longer depending on the person.

Often people find it helpful to use coping tools like listening to very soft comfortable relaxation sounds and/or use relaxation techniques in the days before and after the test. This can help lower hearing system over-activity after a loud stressful event. Ears often settle down sooner, and people cope better with the stress of medical testing.

Sometimes people are offered MRI safe—no metal—earplugs or earmuffs when getting an MRI done. Sometimes people bring their own MRI safe hearing protection. But earplugs or earmuffs are not enough for the high MRI noise. This is one of the rare situations where the general public must always protect their hearing with well fitted double hearing protection: foam or solid earplugs plus earmuffs, both with the highest Noise Reduction Rating possible.

MRI departments should always provide double hearing protection, and have a variety of MRI safe earplugs and earmuffs to fit different shapes and sizes of ears including children, women and men. For some people with hyperacusis, noise during MRI testing will still be painful even with double hearing protection.

Newer more powerful MRI machines can have even higher noise levels (150 dB range), louder than military jets taking off from aircraft carriers. There is high risk of hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, even when people use double hearing protection. Medical experts are asking MRI manufacturers to make quieter machines with much lower noise to prevent hearing system damage in people who need MRIs.

The tech is being developed. A March 11, 2019 article in Fast Company by Mark Wilson shared news that scientists have developed a shape that blocks all sound. A team at Boston University have developed an “acoustic metamaterial” that blocks sound. It still lets air and light through.

The possibilities are endless. Quieter MRI machines. No more noisy leaf blowers, vehicle exhausts, aircraft engines. Will be exciting to see where this research takes noise control.

Jan Mayes

Feature Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

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