Muffled hearing is often a sign of something going on in the outer, middle or inner ear. Depending on the onset (sudden or gradual) and any other extenuating circumstances such as recent air travel, a cold or sinus/allergy complications, excessive noise exposure or a traumatic event; a thorough history is helpful in diagnosing the problem. It is important not to ignore the symptoms and to go to an audiologist for evaluation.
While muffled hearing is not considered a medical emergency, it is still highly recommended to have your hearing checked by an audiologist to prevent further damage or complications.
Muffled Hearing Symptoms
In addition to muffled hearing, many people may experience aural fullness in the ear, pain, tinnitus (ringing, hissing, roaring sound), drainage from the ear, fluctuating hearing, and sometimes dizziness or imbalance. Depending on what is causing the muffled hearing, the symptoms can vary from person to person.
What Causes Muffled Hearing?
There are many causes for experiencing muffled hearing which include:
Wax accumulation or impaction could cause muffled hearing. Since sound cannot get through the ear canal to vibrate the eardrum, the sound that does manage to get through is attenuated or reduced and sometimes distorted, therefore causing a “muffling” effect.
Muffled hearing can be caused by a common cold due to congestion blocking the Eustachian tube. In most cases, colds are usually harmless, and a clogged heart may improve once congestion does.
Also known as age-related hearing loss, presbycusis refers to the gradual age-related hearing loss of high-pitched sounds. A person experiencing this type of muffled hearing may mild to severe hearing loss. Other symptoms of presbycusis may include difficulty hearing in heavy background noise, difficulty hearing a woman’s or child’s voice, or ringing in the ears.
–Middle ear infection
An ear infection or fluid in the middle ear cavity could also cause sound to be muffled. This cavity should be an air-filled cavity allowing for movement of the tiny bones that act as a lever to push sound through. When there is fluid in this space, the bones cannot move freely and it sounds similar to hearing underwater.
Middle ear infections can occur when fluid accumulates in the middle ear due to inflammation or swelling in the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube is responsible for helping the ears drain fluid from the middle ear; if there’s a problem with the Eustachian tube, the middle ear will be affected.
In most cases, middle ear infections are mild and can clear on their own. However, some middle ear infections can lead to hearing loss if left untreated. In severe cases, middle ear infections can lead to ear pain and drainage. Middle ear infections are common in children and need to be addressed immediately.
Other abnormalities in the middle ear space such as a cholesteatoma or otosclerosis can also cause the hearing to be muffled. In addition, sinus/allergy complications that do not allow the eustachian tube to open and close properly can cause aural fullness and pain in the ear in addition to muffling sound.
Also known as acoustic trauma, noise-induced hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the auditory nerve. When there is noise damage, hearing loss or muffled hearing may occur, which may be temporary or permanent.
While the major symptoms of tinnitus include ringing in the ears, tinnitus can also cause muffled hearing. Tinnitus sounds may come and go and are usually caused by damage of the sensory hair cells in the inner ear. Tinnitus can occur with age or due to exposure to loud noises. In some cases, the cause of tinnitus is unknown.
Aside from earwax, a foreign object lodged in the ear canal may also cause ear blockage that could lead to muffled hearing. This might include tiny objects, insects, or water. Having a foreign object lodged in the ear may lead to serious complications and may need medical attention to avoid further ear injury.
-Sinus infection (sinusitis)
Sinus infection occurs when the cavities around the nasal passage become swollen. Sinus drainage caused by an infection can trigger muffled hearing and ear congestion. Other symptoms of sinus infections include coughing, headache, bad breath, fever, and fatigue.
Have you ever felt your ears plug up when riding a plane? “Airplane ears” may occur when there is an imbalance of air pressure in the middle ear and the air pressure in the environment. Plugged up ears and muffled hearing can also occur while riding an elevator driving up in high-altitude areas. Other symptoms of airplane ear include vertigo, ear ain, or even bleeding within the ear. Generally, this condition isn’t serious, but if left untreated, it can lead to chronic ringing in the ears or hearing loss.
-Damage to sensory hair cells
Damage to the sensory hair cells in the inner ear can result in muffled or distorted hearing. These hair cells can be damaged by noise exposure, a virus, toxins, trauma and aging to name a few.
How Long Does a Muffled Ear Last?
Depending on the cause and location of the issue, the muffled sound can last anywhere from 1 day to years. In some cases where the treatment is immediate, patients can experience clear sound once the blockage is removed from the ear canal. In other situations where there is an infection or eustachian tube dysfunction, the muffled sound can appear gradually or suddenly and could fluctuate but will not go away fully until properly treated. In some circumstances, if the muffled hearing is associated with eustachian tube dysfunction and the allergy and sinus related symptoms are resolved, the muffled hearing may disappear.
If the muffled sound is associated with the inner ear hair cells, it can get gradually worse or more noticeable over time as the hearing continues to deteriorate.
How Can You Get Rid of a Muffled Ear?
How muffled hearing is resolved will depend on what the cause is. If your muffled hearing is due to blockage, whether it is wax or a foreign object, you should not attempt to remove it on your own. It is recommended you see an Audiologist or an ENT. In the case of an infection causing eustachian tube blockage, medication and decongestants may be required. In some situations, a pressure equalization tube (PE tube) may need to be inserted through the eardrum to help with releasing pressure and fluid. If there is a mass, lesion or condition affecting the middle ear, surgery may be needed. If the muffled sound is related to a sensory loss of hearing, the treatment requires appropriate amplification or hearing devices. Once properly fitted with hearing aids, the brain begins to receive the sounds it was previously missing and patients notice an immediate and continuing improvement in clarity of sound as their brain adjusts over time.
It is important to not give up on hearing devices because the longer someone waits to treat their hearing the longer it takes for the brain to adapt to sound again. Your Audiologist will work with you to help you during this transition period.
If you are experiencing muffled hearing, don’t ignore it. Your ear is telling you something and you should listen. Your Audiologist is equipped to test and evaluate this condition and will make appropriate recommendations to help treat the problem.
What can I do to treat my muffled ear?
-Remove a blockage
Visiting an audiologist to get your ears checked out is the best way to deal with muffled hearing. Knowing the exact cause of muffled hearing will help provide quick relief.