Hearing: the Science of Protecting Your Ears

In part one of three, EarPeace explains the science behind hearing and hearing loss.
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As music lovers, there is one sense we can’t live without: hearing. Despite its precious nature, noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus are among the fastest growing disabilities in the western world. The increasing amount of amplified music, ranging from iPod headphones to car stereos to festival sound systems, is said to be main driving force behind a problem which now affects approximately one in five people in the US and Europe.

It’s no surprise that the above figure is even higher for those who work in the music industry. It is reported that over 60% of participants have some form of tinnitus. Familiar names such as Carl Craig, Eats Everything and Tony Coleman (London Elektricity) all have severe forms of the problem, with the latter two saying it led to such severe depression that they almost quit altogether. AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson was also recently advised to retire with the real threat of permanent hearing damage looming. And there is no shortage of further examples: Lil Louis unfortunately lost all hearing in one ear in a well documented accident; and Aly, from legendary trance duo Aly & Fila, is restricted to producing at low volumes for fear of going deaf.

Assuming that this only affects musicians who are continuously exposed to loud volumes is a dangerous mistake to make. Actors such as Bill Shatner, Gerard Butler and Steve Martin have all been severely affected by tinnitus, indicating just how widespread noise-induced hearing problems really are.

In this three part news series, we are going to explain three things: the science behind your hearing and how you can prevent damage; the role we as EarPeace can play to keep you protected; and finally, consequences of the problem via an interview with someone affected by it. Most importantly, we want you to understand just how easy it is to look after your hearing, because damage is just as preventable as it is irreversible.

How your hearing works:

Sound waves travel down the ear canal to the eardrum, which then passes the vibrations through the middle ear bones or ossicles into the inner ear (the snail shaped part also known as the cochlea). Inside the cochlea, there are thousands of tiny hair cells which change the vibrations into electrical signals. These signals are then transmitted to the brain through the hearing nerve. The brain tells you that you are hearing a sound and also what that sound is.

The types of hearing damage:

There are two main ailments caused by overexposure to loud sound: sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus.

Sensorineural hearing loss is where the inner ear or auditory nerve no longer detects sound waves normally. You will naturally lose your hearing over time; however this will be precipitated if you are continuously exposed to excessive volumes. You won’t necessarily notice this happening, but if an activity leaves you with a dulled sense of hearing or ringing in the ears then you have been exposed to loud sound for too long-protecting your hearing becomes a must if you repeat said activity. The ringing in your ears is the hair cells in your ear dying out, resulting in the disability of hearing that frequency in the future. Additionally, it must be noted that your ears are not able to "toughen up” to louder noise levels: “getting used to” louder levels is actually another sign of hearing loss rather than your ears becoming stronger.

Tinnitus is a “sensation of noise (as a ringing or roaring) that is caused by a bodily condition (as a disturbance of the auditory nerve or wax in the ear) and typically is of the subjective form which can only be heard by the one affected”. The problem can be caused by a sudden shock of loud noise, or continuous exposure to it. Tinnitus is so debilitating that they made a film about it ("It’s All Gone Pete Tong") and it caused Van Gogh cut off his ear (it was rumoured a severe bout tinnitus was behind this most enigmatic of episodes). It has also severely affected the career of many musicians, as well as blighted the lives millions of others. It can lead to serious depression or even suicide, and can be so severe audiologist’s have called it one of the few “life and death” situations they encounter clinically.

How loud is too loud:

To help you understand at what volumes damage starts to occur, researchers have put together the following table. To contextualize, the volume in an average nightclub is around 100db, while an outdoor stage can range from 90db to peaks of 140db. Interestingly, while a 3db increases halves the amount of time you should be in a loud environment, it won’t actually sound twice as loud. Instead, scientists have deduced it takes a 10db increase before something sounds twice as loud.

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The cures for tinnitus/ hearing damage:

Although there has been no shortage of time and resources invested, there is still no cure for either tinnitus or hearing loss. Both can be treated, but this will do nothing more than mask over problems which are irreversible. For example, you can install hearing aids to aid deafness, but there will only help with communication and will never replace the ability to hear naturally. And at an average cost of $4,800 with a life expectancy of five years (or $980/ year), this becomes a expensive treatment for something that doesn’t deliver anything close to perfect audio fidelity. When you compare this to the cost of ear plugs, whether EarPeace ($13-20) or custom moulded ($150+), then using hearing protection really does become a no-brainer.

The treatment for tinnitus is even more tenuous, and the advice given is learn to live with it. It is a problem in the brain rather than the ear, and scientists are still trying to work out exactly what causes it—explaining the lack of adequate remedy. Top tips for tinnitus sufferers include avoiding stress, adequate rest and the avoidance of stimulants (e.g smoking, caffeine, alcohol, etc.). Other suggestions include white noise machines during sleep, therapy, or support groups. Carl Craig has previously stated he uses the sound of Tibetan bowls to “reset” his tinnitus, while alternatives include acupuncture, sound baths and hypnosis. All in all, like putting makeup on a dog or autotune on a bad singer, all you are really doing is masking an ugly problem that never really goes away. As Tony Coleman told us in a previous interview: the only way through it is to “learn to make friends with tinnitus.”

How to prevent hearing damage:

Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf) has come up with some simple ways to avoid hearing damage at music events while still having a good time. The most common of these methods is the use of ear plugs, preferably with high fidelity filters. Among music heads and industry professionals, high fidelity hearing protection is the preferred choice as the filters allow sound through clearly without distorting sound. This is a huge step up from the more archaic methods of tissue, cigarette filters, or foam ear plugs stuffed in your ear. While these may be great for bringing down the volume, the effect on music is comparable to wearing a pillow over your head.

Ear plugs are effective due to the way noise affects your ears: the amount of time you can be in a loud environment is doubled for every three decibels you drop the volume. So taking the average club night of 100 decibels, the amount of time you can spend in this environment is 15 minutes before you start damaging your hearing.

Using our HD earplugs as an example, which have filters which drop the volume by an average of 15 and 20 decibels, the amount of time you can safely be in that noise environment increases to four hours and eight hours respectively— a considerable increase for little sacrifice. Another tip is to take regular breaks, giving your ears the chance to rest in chill out areas before heading back to your choice of dancefloor/ musical show. The final one is to stand back from the speakers: only an idiot would think that standing next to reverberating speakers will improve one’s auditory experience, so try and find a sweet spot away from them. Not only will you hear the music more clearly, you’ll also leave with a better sense of hearing.

Outside of music shows, there are also several simple things you can do. When purchasing headphones, make sure they are noise isolating. This will prevent you from having the volume too loud to cover external noise. Noise isolating headphones normally have rubber or silicone tips, forming a seal around your ear and reducing the amount of noise coming in from outside. If playing music through speakers, an idea would be to download a decibel meter app on your phone. While not 100% accurate, these will give you a good indication of how loud you are playing music, which in turn will help adjust the volume to appropriate levels. If you are undertaking loud activities where hearing clearly isn’t crucial to the experience, (e.g shooting or construction), consider doubling up on protection by using over ear muffs as well as in-ear plugs. These are just some ideas; there are plenty of other ways in which you can protect your hearing without affecting your experience.

Many people believe that hearing problems are something that won’t affect them, or ruined to the point it’s beyond repair. What they don’t realise is that hearing problems generally manifest over time, rather than appearing immediately. Just ask anyone with tinnitus or premature hearing loss and they will tell you that they wish they had done something about it earlier. It normally takes some kind of shock, like a few hours in a club with deafening speakers, or a friend succumbing to hearing problems, before any action is taken. By this time it could be too late. As music lovers, your hearing is such a precious gift that must be cared for and preserved in the same way you’d look after your favourite vinyls or instruments. The cost of doing so is so small compared to the cost of auricular damage, so why leave it to chance?

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Photo/Table: http://www.noisehelp.com/noise-dose.html