Sunday, December 04, 2011


Air Bag Hearing Loss

Early in November this year I was injured in a bad automobile accident. My car was hit hard enough to cause the air bags to deploy. I don’t remember that part of the accident but when I came to, the two front seat air bags were full of gas and the car was full of some kind of powder or vapor. My head must have been struck by the air bag. My glasses fell off and a stranger found them for me in the car after I had been helped to the curb.

What is particularly interesting to me is the kind of deafness that I now have. Both my doctor and one of my daughters tell me it is a frequent consequence of being hit in the face by an expanding air bag. I can hear the same high frequencies that I heard before the accident but now I can’t relate them to the sounds of spoken language produced by the high frequencies, such as the ability to distinguish between the “f” sound and the “s” sound.

The really strange part of the hearing impairment came to me when I tried to play a simple musical instrument, a recorder (or fipple flute). I took an alto recorder which has a pitch range from F above middle C to F two octaves above. I had no problem playing the first octave, from F to f. Continuing above f I played g, a, and b. When I tried to play the next note, c’, it sounded way off in pitch. It sounded like g’, a half octave higher! I thought there was something wrong with my fingering. I picked up a soprano recorder. It has a range from c (an octave above middle C) to c’’, two octaves higher. On this instrument I could not get the c’, just an octave above c, to sound correctly. The fingering for the note is different from that of the alto recorder and I began to realize that something strange had happened to my hearing.

I went to the piano. I played the C major scale, starting at middle C. Sure enough, the c’’ two octaves above was badly out of tune. It sounded like the g’’ half an octave higher. The other notes above c’’ were in correct pitch with each other but were all too high by about half an octave.

Since then the missing gap in my pitch assignment of high notes that I hear has decreased from about half an octave to a quarter. My understanding of human speech has improved slightly. However, I am grateful for the printed dialog my new TV set provides for the programs I like to watch, such as the PBS News Hour and some of the British comedies and mysteries.

I have had my hearing tested innumerable times. I have never been tested for pitch (frequency) recognition or pitch interval assignment. I don’t know whether such tests exist. I wonder if any of the other persons who have been deafened by air bags have had a hearing experience similar to mine.

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