Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

In Hearing Health, Hearing Loss by Susan L Fenrich, BC-HIS*

Susan L Fenrich, BC-HIS*

Most of us who are fortunate enough to reach old age will experience some form of hearing loss. The natural process of growing older is accompanied with hearing loss as the years go by, but some other people experience hearing loss due to exposure to very loud sounds. Indeed, even if that loud sound occurs for a rather brief period of time, unprotected ears are at risk for permanent damage. 

The combination of volume level, measured in decibels, and time of exposure, measured in mere minutes, can be enough to cause this noise-induced hearing loss. Although some noisy situations might be obvious to you, such as working at an airport or performing in a rock band, other risks of noise-induced hearing loss are much subtler and can be integrated into normal life. 

Let’s take a look at the process of noise-induced hearing loss and what you can do to protect yourself. 

How Does Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Occur?

Our ears are remarkable organs of the body where slight variations in sound vibration are transformed into electrical impulses that the brain can receive and understand. This truly outstanding process requires sensitivity, and with that sensitivity comes a vulnerability to damage. 

When a sound wave sends pressure to the ear, a chain reaction occurs. Those vibrations move from one part of the ear canal to the next, eventually arriving at the spiraling cochlea of the inner ear. At this location, tiny hair-like organelles called stereocilia are vibrated by frequencies of sound at varying locations in the inward spiral. These hairs have to be able to detect slight differences in the rate of vibration, so they are very sensitive. When very loud sound comes into the ear, it is possible to break, bend, or damage these tiny fragile hairs, and the result is noise-induced hearing loss.

The types of damaging sounds might surprise you. When a sound registers at 85 decibels, your ears can usually bear up to 8 hours of exposure without experiencing damage. 

However, beyond that threshold, the amount of time decreases abruptly. Very loud sounds can only be endured for 15 minutes or so without causing damage. What qualifies as a very loud sound, you might ask? 

Extreme noise from a music amplifier, speaker, or instrument can cause damage, indeed, just as can a factory, machine, or industrial work site. Yet, something like a pair of earbuds, headphones, or a television can also be turned up to a loud enough volume to cause damage rather quickly. In fact, noise-induced hearing loss is on the rise among people younger than ever. Many experts suspect that the uptick in usage of audio devices, smartphones, and all forms of headphones might be responsible for these higher rates of noise-induced hearing loss. 

What Can You Do to Protect Your Hearing?

Hearing protection comes in all shapes and sizes. For many purposes, a simple pair of disposable foam earplugs will be sufficient to protect you from damaging noise. Even disposable earplugs come in a range of protection, measured in terms of the decibels of sound they keep out of the ears. 

More advanced levels of exposure require more advanced protection in the form of noise-cancelling earmuffs or other specialized equipment. An attractive option are the custom-fitted ear molds that can block certain damaging frequencies while permitting others, particularly in the range of human speech. Musicians tend to appreciate these custom-fitted earmolds, because they allow a person to hear music while blocking out damaging volumes and tones. 

The other form of protection is actually prevention. Limiting your exposure to noise is a conscious process of removing yourself from extended duration in loud spaces. In addition, monitoring the volume level on your devices, as well as remaining aware of how long you have been wearing headphones are both important aspects of prevention. 

If your volume level creeps above 75% of the maximum on your device, you might be doing damage through extended use. 

Finally, if you fear that you have already incurred noise-related hearing loss, don’t delay getting a hearing test to see how your ears are functioning. If you have lost some hearing ability, the time is now to take steps in the direction of treatment. Contact us today!