How to Protect Your Ears
The facts speak for themselves. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), 12.5% of children and adolescents and 17% of adults – over 31 million Americans have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to noise.
Think this can't happen to you? Consider this: Just 15 minutes of exposure to high-decibel noise or music can cause permanent hearing loss. That's right. Permanent. Research indicates that 30% of rock musicians have a measurable hearing loss. Classical musicians fare even worse – with up to 52% experiencing hearing impairment. The good news? Hearing loss can be prevented — so listen up while you still can.
Your ears process sound audio frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. Audio frequencies between 500 and 4000 Hz are the frequencies that we associate with speech.
Hearing loss is classified according to which part of the auditory system is affected. There are three types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural (including the Noise-Induced type we're talking about here) and mixed. We're going to skip the conductive and mixed types and go straight to the noise-induced cause of sensorineural damage.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss is sometimes called Nerve Deafness and happens when inner ear nerves become damaged and do not properly transmit signals to the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss is the result of:
• Illness or injury
• Excessive noise exposure
It's the most common type of hearing loss among adults and is rarely medically or surgically treatable. Most sensorineural hearing loss can only be treated with hearing aids. Be aware of this: hearing aids can only amplify the frequencies you can hear – they will not replace the high frequencies that you've lost. More bad news: a single digital hearing aid from a leading manufacturer will set you back around $1500 – and it's not covered by insurance.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Excessive sound exposure damages hearing by over-stimulating the tiny hair cells within the inner ear. There are between 15,000 and 20,000 of these microscopic sensory receptors. When they're damaged, they no longer transmit sound to the brain.
Sounds are muffled. Human speech is difficult to understand. The damage that occurs slowly over years of continuous exposure to loud noise is accompanied by various changes in the structure of the hair cells. It also results in hearing loss and tinnitus - a ringing, buzzing or roaring in the ears or head, which may or may not subside over time. It may be experienced in one or both ears, and tinnitus may continue constantly or intermittently throughout a lifetime.
Turn it Down!
A typical rock concert can average between 110 and 120 dB SPL (Sound Pressure Level), even in locations with local noise ordinances.
According to the organization H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers), "At rock shows, the dB level can be as great as 140 dB SPL in front of the speakers and about 120 dB SPL at the back which is still very loud and dangerous." Probably, the best-known example of alleged rock-related hearing damage is a Smashing Pumpkins concert in 2000 in which loudness levels reached 125 decibels. The resulting litigation against the concert hall, the band, the promoters, and the record label is probably still keeping lawyers busy.
Loud music isn't the only problem. According to music writer Bernard Sherman, "Such stereotypical guy-toys as guns, motorcycles, chainsaws, and snowmobiles can punish your ears just as badly – so can leaf blowers; so can some digital movie theater soundtracks." About 30 million Americans – more than one in ten – are exposed every day to dangerously loud levels of noise.
Are You at Risk?
Given the statistics, it appears that if you were born after 1946, the answer is a loud "yes". According to the House Ear Institute (HEI), "Advances in the electronics industry have made possible clean sound production at higher sound pressure levels. This has resulted in an average sound increase of 10-15 dB in the work environments of musicians, audio engineers, record and movie/television producers, post-production mixers, dancers and other entertainment professionals."
1. Do you have trouble understanding certain words or parts of words?
2. Do you often ask others to repeat themselves?
3. Do you have difficulties on the telephone?
4. Do others complain about television or radio volumes?
5. Do you have more trouble understanding people in noisy environments?
6. Do sounds seem muffled?
7. Do you experience ear discomfort like ringing or buzzing in the ears?
If you've experienced some or all of these indicators, you may be prone to Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL). It's time for a visit to the audiologist.
Keep this in mind – even if you have experienced a degree of loss — it is NOT TOO LATE to preserve your hearing. NIHL is not a degenerative condition unless you ignore it.
Ten Things You Can Do to Preserve Your Hearing
Here are some general tips for diminishing potential damage to your hearing:
- Limit the amount of time you spend in a loud environment.
- Wear hearing protection when involved in a loud activity. Forget about tissue or cotton – these homemade devices only reduce noise by about 7 dB. They're not effective.
- Be alert to noise levels in your environment.
- If you know a gig will be longer than usual, decrease the intensity level.
- Increase distance between you and the sound source – this means standing at an angle from the source – not in front of it.
- Take breaks during long sessions to give your ears a rest.
- Be aware of the symptoms of hearing loss – listen to your own ears.
- Keep the volume at moderate levels when you're using headphones or earphones.
- Have your hearing checked by an audiologist. (There are retail 'hearing aid dispensers' who are in the business of selling hearing devices and there are audiologists who are trained to evaluate and improve your hearing. Have your doctor recommend an audiologist.) Make an audiologist appointment an annual event if you're at risk or if a loss has been detected.
- If you think you're risking your hearing as a result of prolonged exposure, (for instance sounds in excess of 85 dB SPL) buy a sound pressure level meter and measure SPL against OSHA requirements. A variety of types and models are available for around $50.
Want more information?
Non-profit hearing information source for musicians
OSHA Permissible Noise Standards
Find exposure standards here
American Academy of Audiologists
More information on hearing loss, audiologist locator
Hearing-protection products – sound-isolating earphones and custom earplugs – for the music industry