Surveys estimate that noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) affects 10 to 15 million people in the United States. The excessive vibratory motion created by loud sound can cause a plethora of damage in the delicate cochlear sensory cells and the nearby supporting pillar cells of the hearing organ. The hearing organ is called the cochlea. Noise can rupture the tips of the nerve cells, fuse sensory nerve cells together, damage the area through which the cells transmit signals and even change the vascular pathways (blood flow) inside the organ. The vulnerability of the inner ear is dependent upon several factors, such as smoking, hypertension, lipid levels, age, gender, eye color and other genetic factors.
Noise damage usually causes difficulty hearing particular pitches of sound. With noise exposure, a person may experience damage in sections of the cochlea. The cochlear is tonotopically arranged high to low frequencies, similar to the keys of a piano. The more exposed area of the cochlea houses the high frequencies, the lower frequencies are deeper toward the center; thus, more protected.
This type of hearing impairment significantly compromises the ability to understand speech, especially in noise. Part of the hearing organ functions and a different part does not. Noise-induced hearing loss may also cause tinnitus, a ringing, roaring or cricket-like sound in your ears or head.
Causes of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
There are two types of noise-induced hearing loss: gradual and traumatic. Many people think shooting a gun once or twice as a child does not count as having been exposed to noise. However, the long-term side effect of even one occurrence of significant noise may cause permanent, irreversible damage. Recreational and work-related hearing loss is common. The sound from a shop vac, leaf blower, hair dryer, skill saw, chainsaw and, of course, any motorized equipment, are just a few culprits of hearing loss.
Musicians should protect their hearing, as should the music lover! It only takes one loud concert without hearing protection to permanently change the quality of your hearing. If you want to see what the inside of the hearing organ looks like after noise exposure, do a web search for “images of noise damage in cochlea.” Those pictures are worth a thousand words. Show them to your kids!
Preventing Hearing Loss
To prevent hearing loss, you must be proactive and use hearing protection each time you are exposed to noise. Cotton in your ears will not provide any protection. You can wear either earplugs or earmuffs. Standard earplugs are nice because they are small and do not interfere with glasses. It is important to insert the plug deep into the canal. If you have very small or very large ear canals, earmuffs would be a better choice. Earmuffs should not touch the ear but rather make a seal all the way around the sides of your ears.
There are electronic earmuffs and custom ear plugs that amplify the sounds around you until the loud sound occurs, at which time the amplification is cut off. The custom products will require an earmold impression of your ear canals. The impressions are sent to the manufacturer to make custom-fit hearing protection. The in-the-ear custom-fit technology works well for rifle hunters. Earmuffs get in the way of the gun while shooting. If you are going to invest in electronic technology, do your homework and read the reviews prior to making a purchase.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Treatment
The treatment/management of noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus is twofold: protect what you have and amplify what you need. Auditory rehabilitation and counseling work very well for managing hearing impairment. The sessions will focus on understanding your hearing loss, controlling the environment to facilitate better speech understanding, using visual cues and the best use of your hearing aids or other assistive technology. You learn the importance of reducing background noise so you can focus on speech. You are taught to instruct the people you interact with to speak slowly and distinctly and get your attention before they speak to you.
If you have difficulty understanding speech consistently, hearing aids are a great option. The new digital hearing aids are very good at increasing sound in a comfortable manner. The directional microphones and noise cancelling algorithms have brought relief to many hearing-impaired people (and their family members). If you are withdrawing from social activities because of your hearing, it is time to do something about it. Speak to an audiologist about your hearing options. QCBN
By Karon Lynn, Au.D.
Trinity Hearing Center is located at 1330 N. Rim Dr., Suite B in Flagstaff. For more information, visit the website at TrinityHearing.net. Karon Lynn is a doctor of audiology with 30 years of experience working with hearing impaired individuals. Dr. Lynn may be reached at 928-522-0500 or at email@example.com.