Five years ago, Kathy McCain had an MRI for lower back pain. She wore earplugs and protective earmuffs to dull the jarringly loud noise of the machine.
Still, she emerged feeling unwell. When she awakened from a nap, her ears felt full and sore, and were ringing loudly. A searing pain shot down her neck. “I think I’m in trouble,” she told her husband, Rod McCain.
Later, during a trip to the store, Kathy was overwhelmed by the sounds there — penetrating voices, throbbing refrigerators, metal shopping carts. “Her hearing is like somebody turned up the amplifier,” Rod tells PEOPLE. “Since the MRI, life has been a struggle.”
It took two years for the worst of the pain to subside, but Kathy continues to suffer. She has hyperacusis, a sound sensitivity she explains as “amplified hearing,” where sounds are abnormally loud.
She also has intrusive ringing, or tinnitus, with multiple tones that are heightened by almost any noise, even her own voice. Random crawling sensations bedevil her ears.
“I feel as though I am being attacked by sound,” Kathy, 66, tells PEOPLE. “No doctors or audiologists are able to help. I am practically a recluse. I live a life of misery.”
The MRI showed nothing wrong. Her back pain improved to mild and manageable — inconsequential compared with her life-limiting hearing problems.
“This machine is advertised as completely safe,” Kathy says. “Well, it is not, and I am living proof. I am not the only one.”
She is now eager to warn others about the little-acknowledged dangers of MRI noise.
Since the early 1980s, with the advent of MRI technology to take images inside the body, it has been clear that the intense noise is enough to cause hearing loss and other hearing problems, says Dr. Emanuel Kanal, a professor of radiology at the University of Pittsburgh and an MRI safety expert.
More than 35 million MRIs are given in the U.S. each year. And the volume can hit a jackhammer-loud 120 decibels or more. The longer the exposure time, the higher the auditory risk. The resulting ear problems are vastly underreported, Kanal says.
The obvious remedy is ear protection. But that is not always enough, as Kathy learned. A study recently published in the journal Radiology found measurable post-MRI ear damage — muffled hearing — even in people wearing earplugs.
MRI patients don’t always know that a common medical test will sound like a construction site. Nor do they know how to properly use earplugs, which come in different strengths and which offer little protection if worn incorrectly.
“Earplugs may dislodge or fall out,” Kanal says. He suggests using a second layer of protection: MRI-safe earmuffs encasing the ears.
He also advocates for the “whisper test,” where the MRI technologist, out of eyeshot, whispers to the patient. If the patient hears through the ear protection, the protection is inadequate.
In practice, patients report a hodgepodge of approaches — from no ear protection to assorted earplugs to piped-in music from headset or earbud devices. People also have differing levels of susceptibility to noise damage.
“The irony is that the imaging may produce no findings for the original condition, yet patients are left debilitated with devastating ear problems,” says Bryan Pollard, president of the nonprofit Hyperacusis Research, which funds research into noise-induced pain.
“Patients are rarely informed of the significant risk of auditory destruction from loud MRIs,” he says. “People don’t even understand the importance of protecting themselves from noise in general. What’s more, ill-informed doctors may order an MRI for patients with hearing problems clearly caused by noise, in which case they will be worsened for no reason.”
The McCains, who live south of Houston, have insulated their house with double-glazed windows. Kathy keeps protective earmuffs at hand, lest she be ambushed by a surprise noise.
When Rod vacuums indoors, Kathy sits in the car. Driving is tough, due to road whine and vibration. The McCains use the back roads, never the highways, though trips take far longer.
Kathy says she and her husband sought legal advice for her situation, but found that her hidden condition would be difficult to prove objectively in a court of law.
“The MRI was a tragedy for me,” Kathy says. “It ruined my hearing and my life. I now have a bizarre condition that others cannot fathom.” Birdsong pierces her head like a shrill whistle. “It takes me 24 hours to recover from a bird!”
Kathy and Rod, who works in safety management for an engineering firm, have three grown children. “Holidays used to mean laughter, music and lively conversation,” Kathy says. Festive china graced the table. Now, to avoid painful clinking, the family eats from paper plates.
“You can’t quite wrap your head around it,” Rod says. “My wife looks fine. She can walk, she can move, she can stand up — but she can’t engage in life.”