Doctors don’t make MRI referrals unless testing is important for a person’s healthcare. But MRI testing can cause hearing loss, tinnitus, or hyperacusis. In 2018, scientists found noise levels of modern MRI machines are extremely high.
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). Newer more powerful MRI machines can have even higher noise levels (150 dB range), louder than military jets taking off from aircraft carriers. 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 foam or solid earplugs. Many MRI clinics now offer double hearing protection to patients. Hopefully MRI departments have a variety of MRI safe earplugs and earmuffs to fit different shapes and sizes of ears including children and adults.
Sometimes people bring their own MRI safe high noise reduction rating hearing protection (highest NRR as possible). When using double hearing protection, people usually can’t hear instructions, but typically you must remain completely still anyway.
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.
Medical experts are asking MRI manufacturers to make quieter machines with much lower noise levels 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.
In the meantime if you need an MRI, talk to your doctor or referring doctor about any concerns. Check ahead about MRI-safe hearing protection if possible, or bring your own double set.