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Hearing loss from noise exposure can affect anyone, however musicians are more likely than the average person to experience this type of hearing loss. In fact, musicians are four times more likely to develop noise induced hearing loss than the average person.
How does sound impact hearing health?
There are three primary types of hearing loss, they are categorized by cause and origin.
Conductive hearing loss occurs in the middle or outer ear and is often caused by mechanical issues in the ear such as obstructions. Sensorineural hearing loss occurs in the inner ear and can be caused by age, noise, medications, diseases, and other problems impacting the inner ear. The final type of hearing loss is mixed hearing loss which is a combination of both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.
Noise exposure falls into the sensorineural category. This is because sound, over time, damages the tiny hair cells in the inner ear that transmits sound into input the brain can interpret. This type of hearing loss is permanent and not reversible.
In addition to hearing loss, noise exposure can also lead to tinnitus. Tinnitus is the medical term used to describe ringing in the ears. It often, but not always, occurs with hearing loss.
How much noise is too much?
Noise is measured in terms of decibels, or dB. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) describes safe sound as 85 decibels and below. For reference, the average conversation is between 60-70 dB.
Exposure to sound over 85 dB for 8 hours or more is considered hazardous per NIOSH. As the decibels increase, the amount of time a person can be exposed without damage to hearing decreases.
The average personal music listening device is 105-110 dB. Noise at this level can cause hearing damage in as little as 5 minutes. While concerts can be as loud as 100-120 dB, and rock concerts even louder.
While the obvious concern for noise exposure is concerts, it can also include those who listen to music loudly through headphones or in the car. Furthermore, noise exposure is a concern for children and adults who practice instruments at home or at a school band practice.
Tips for Musicians
If you are a musician or spend a lot of time listening to music, it is important to have a plan for ear protection in order to prevent hearing loss in the long run. If you are listening through your own personal headphones or earbuds, make sure to keep the volume at a reasonable level. Below are some tips if you are around live music regularly.
- Annual hearing test– Even if you don’t currently have any symptoms of hearing loss, obtaining a baseline hearing test from an audiologist is a good idea for a couple reasons. The first is because hearing loss is often slow and gradual, it is possible that you simply haven’t noticed symptoms. Furthermore, having a baseline hearing test allows the audiologist to use it for comparison purposes later on.
- Use in- ear monitors- These can allow the user to hear the music while simultaneously blocking any outside or background noise.
- Earplugs- Earplugs and headphones that have been tested to the level of noise needed can be used as well. Furthermore if you use musician’s earplugs you may be able to hear your own voice or instrument more clearly. There are custom fit ear plugs using special material like foam that an audiologist can make to fit your ear exactly.
Treatment for Hearing Loss
If you have begun to experience noise related hearing loss or tinnitus, speak to an audiologist today. Most noise induced hearing loss is treated with hearing aids. Hearing aids can be programmed to meet the exact needs of the user, considering both frequency and volume. They also have settings to reduce background noise and in some cases can be controlled through small remotes or apps on your smartphone.
It is important to note that even if you have hearing loss and already use hearing aids, you are still at risk for further hearing damage at these noise levels. Ear protection will continue to be needed even with pre-existing hearing loss.
If you are a regular listener of music or a musician, make an appointment with an audiologist today to obtain a baseline hearing test and discuss ear protection going forward.