Hearing problems aren't a common MS symptom. But people with MS can sometimes experience problems including tinnitus, increased sensitivity to sound and loss of hearing.
There are other possible causes of hearing problems which are more common than MS. So if you develop hearing problems, contact your doctor to have the problem properly investigated.
What hearing problems can MS cause?
The kind of problems that might be caused by MS include:
- difficulty in hearing conversation against a noisy background (for example, when the TV’s on or when you're in a crowded place)
- distorted sound
- increased sensitivity to noise
- tinnitus - the perception of noise in the ear or head. It can be a range of sounds, but it's usually a ringing or whistling noise.
Very occasionally, people develop sudden hearing loss in one or both ears because of an MS relapse. If this happens, hearing will usually improve once the relapse is over, although some problems may remain.
A small number of people with MS have difficulties understanding spoken language. This is known as receptive aphasia. It’s a problem with language processing, not a change in hearing. Your doctor or MS team can help you find ways to manage this MS symptom.
The impact of MS hearing problems
Hearing problems with MS can have an impact on different areas of day to day life. Even if the symptoms are short-lived, you might need to find new ways to do things while they affect you. That could be practical things like crossing roads safely, but also adapting to social situations.
Some people find they have to mention their hearing problem to all sorts of people they don’t know. And that can be tiring, frustrating and sometimes difficult to do.
How long can MS hearing problems last?
Hearing problems caused by MS are usually a short-term symptom. For example, they might come on during a relapse, and they usually improve once the relapse is over. But some people do experience longer lasting changes to their hearing.
How are MS hearing problems diagnosed?
There are lots of tests to find the cause of hearing problems, including checking if they’re caused by MS or something else. Finding the cause helps find the best way to manage the symptom.
Your GP or MS team usually refer you to a local hospital or health centre for tests. The RNID charity has lots more information about hearing tests you might have.
What causes MS hearing problems?
MS affects the nerves in the brain. And this can cause hearing problems and other MS symptoms related to the ears.
When MS damages the nerve fibres, or the myelin sheath around the outside, it can affect messages going to and from the ear. When messages get slower, distorted or can’t get through, this can cause the changes to hearing, balance and how we process what we hear.
MS-related hearing problems are usually caused by nerve damage in the brainstem. The brainstem is the part of your brain that joins to the spinal cord, at the back of your head. Problems can also come from other areas of your brain involved in processing information from the ear.
The brainstem is also involved in balancing the body. So if you have MS-related hearing problems, you might also have problems with vertigo (a spinning sensation) and balance (a rocking ship sensation).
Temperature and hearing problems
How can I manage MS hearing problems?
If your hearing problems are the result of an MS relapse, you might be prescribed steroids. This could help to clear up symptoms more quickly. Your hearing could also improve or return to normal on its own after a relapse.
If your hearing difficulties are longer lasting, you might find a hearing aid for one or both ears helpful. Not everyone finds hearing aids helpful. But lots of different types are available and an audiologist can help you find the most suitable one.
It can take some time to get used to hearing aids. If you’re not getting on with them, let your audiologist know in case there are adjustments they can make.
Some people find induction loops useful too. These work with a hearing aid in places like cinemas and offices to make the sound you hear clearer and reduce background sounds and echoes. You might also be able to fit one at home.
There’s lots of technology that can help with hearing difficulties, including devices to help you use mobile phones, watch TV, and manage daily life.
If you have tinnitus, the British Tinnitus Association offers support and information.
If you have hearing problems with MS, you might find you’re explaining this symptom to lots of different people. That might not always be easy, and it can be tiring and upsetting to keep explaining the same thing. You might feel you’re telling people you wouldn’t normally tell about your health.
Thinking ahead about what you'd say to different people might help make this as easy as possible. For example:
- Let health and social care professionals know if your hearing difficulties mean you’d rather have face-to-face appointments when that's possible
- Remind care professionals you might not hear them approach. For example if you’re having an injection, or a carer helps you move.
- With friends, family or neighbours you might decide it helps if they understand a bit more about your hearing changes. For instance, if you feel comfortable about it, you might ask them to let you know if you play music too loudly without realising it. If you have tinnitus or are sensitive to noise you might explain what this means for you, and if it comes and goes
- Perhaps there are relatively simple things you could ask people to do – things that help you both communicate more easily. For example, asking them to speak louder or more slowly if that helps. Would you like them to remove their face mask so you can see their lips move? If this makes you feel more vulnerable to infection, could you also ask them to stand back and remove their mask? Not everyone feels comfortable asking people to make these little adjustments, but remember they can help everyone be understood more easily
- If you’re employed, 'reasonable adjustments' could help. To get those you’ll need to explain things to your employer. Maybe there are some colleagues you want to tell too. Find out about your rights at work
What else can cause hearing problems?
MS can cause hearing problems, but there are other possible causes which are more common.
For example, both ears can be affected as we get older. Or if we’re often exposed to loud noise or music for long periods of time.
If one ear is affected, common causes of hearing problems include:
- a build-up of ear wax
- damage to the eardrum (for example, from poking something in your ear)
- inflammation or infection in the middle ear (just behind your eardrum)
These conditions can usually be treated. The RNID has more information about possible causes of hearing loss. But it’s important to get it checked out by a health care professional to find the right way to treat or manage it.
Where can I get support for hearing problems?
If you have any concerns about your hearing, speak to your doctor or MS team. But you can also speak to our MS Helpline for support and information. And you might find some other charities helpful too.
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