Science Explains Why You Sometimes Can't Hear After You Orgasm
"When I come really hard, I hear ringing in my ears, and feel a little deaf for maybe five or ten minutes afterwards," my friend Katie told me. "It's cool because then I don't have to listen to anything—or anyone—and can just lie there in a stupor until my buttons reset. The more my auditory senses are obliterated right after orgasm, the better it probably was. It takes a proper bonking to deafen me."
When I told my boyfriend about the ear ringing, he said, "That's just what happens when you bing bong when you bang bang [name extracted]." Unsure about his theory, I asked ears, nose, and throat surgeon Dr. Eric Levi to do a little research on this unexplained phenomenon.
Broadly: Have you ever heard of ringing in the ears related to orgasm?
Dr. Eric Levi: I've never been asked that before, and I've never ever thought about the association between the two. So I did what I was trained to do with any question I don't know the answer to: I researched it to see if there are any available explanations in the scientific literature.
I think I may have found the possible explanations. But first, a big disclaimer: I am not an expert in the subject of tinnitus [the scientific term for ringing in the ears] or female orgasm. The findings detailed here are not an extensive and definitive thesis on hearing loss, tinnitus, and the female orgasm. It's simply how I theoretically and scientifically make sense of it with the limited data available on the matter.
"There are four phases of the human sexual response cycle: the excitement phase, plateau phase, orgasmic phase, and resolution phase."
Is there research on this subject?
There are thousands of scientific papers about hearing loss and tinnitus. There are hundreds of papers about the female orgasm. There is nothing in the literature that links the subject of hearing loss and tinnitus with orgasm. Therefore, I can only deduce on the basis of first principles of physiology. I certainly do not think that a prospective randomized double blind controlled human study on this matter would ever pass the ethics committee.
How does tinnitus work?
It is the subjective experience of sound in the absence of any objective external stimulus. Tinnitus is a common problem. There are many types and causes of tinnitus, and it can be associated with hearing loss in some cases. Subjectively, patients describe many different kinds of tinnitus: ringing, high pitch, humming, or pulsatile. Most of us would have experienced a mild form of it at some stage in our lives. For example, after a loud concert, or when in a quiet room and having your ears blocked, you might hear that soft high pitched noise in the background or the beating of your heart in your ears. Patients who have lost their hearing also describe significant tinnitus. It's likely due to the loss of function of the hearing cells and nerves. The receiver [the brain] always wants some auditory input. If there's no objective neural auditory input, then this gap is filled in with this subjective white noise.
What could happen during orgasm that triggers the onset of this tinnitus?
Let's look at the physiology of orgasm. There are four phases of the human sexual response cycle: the excitement phase, plateau phase, orgasmic phase, and resolution phase. During the excitement and plateau phase, the heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure go up. Some muscles contract voluntarily and others involuntarily. This arousal and increase in excitement psychologically and physiologically climaxes—pardon the pun—in the orgasmic phase. The orgasmic phase in males is said to last ten to 15 seconds, and in females longer. Sex increases the production of oxytocin (the feel good hormone), which leads to the release of endorphins (natural morphine). A complex interplay of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems occurs during orgasm. This is then quickly followed by the resolution phase, which allows the muscles to relax, blood pressure to drop, and the body to slow down from its excited state. It is during this resolution phase that some have experienced tinnitus with or without hearing loss.
Let's hear your hypotheses.
Here is my first hypothesis: that the sudden reduction in heart rate and blood pressure results in sudden pressure changes in the middle ear and reduction of blood flow to the inner ear. The middle ear is a finely tuned piece of engineering. Changes in pressure within it would change the acoustic properties of sound transmission through the eardrum and hearing bones. This might result in a muffled hearing. In addition, the reduction of blood flow to the inner ear cochlea might mean that the hearing nerves might experience a transient reduction of essential nutrients, which results in temporary faulty signaling to the brain. This might explain the hearing loss and tinnitus.
My second hypothesis relates to what happens in the brain itself. During sex and orgasm, the areas in the brain that gets switched on are the nucleus accumbens (reward center), hypothalamus (oxytocin production), amygdala (emotions), hippocampus (memory storage), and cerebellum (muscle tone). More importantly, the parts of the brain that gets deactivated are the prefrontal cortex (decision making and executive thought) and the temporal lobe (hearing and sensory association center)—that last bit is important. My second hypothesis therefore is that the change in the activity of the temporal lobe after orgasm results in a change in auditory perception. This may result in some people having a change in their threshold for experiencing tinnitus. In addition, the release of chemical endorphins may also change the activities of the neurotransmitters in the brain, causing a change in sensory perception.
"If this bothers you, get a professional to look into it."
Could you prove these theories?
To prove these two hypothesis, I will need to do immediate hearing tests with and without comparable stimulus after orgasm. I will also need to do angiographic vascular studies of vessels of the middle ear and inner ear, barometric pressure studies of the middle ear, MRI and functional PET scan studies of the brain, as well as serum studies of hormone levels in the blood before, during, and right after orgasm. You can imagine how challenging that would be. Suffice to say, I am happy to deduce the association of hearing loss and tinnitus with orgasm based on first principles of physiology.
Any idea how common this is? Is it normal?
My guess would be that this is not a rare occurrence in the general public, although we may never know the true prevalence unless a population study is undertaken. It may in fact be a variation of normal physiology. I can't prove that empirically. However, as I always say to my friends who ask me health-related questions: If this bothers you, get a professional to look into it. Speak to a doctor, audiologist, or ENT surgeon who can look into it carefully and rule out any potential problems.