Music - A guide to Hearing Loss

The problems of loud music and hearing loss are well documented. Listening to loud music over a number of years can permanently damage your hearing and you may not be aware of this until much later on in life.

This damage results in sensorineural hearing loss.

Traditionally, ear damage caused by music has been mainly through live events such as concerts, Hi-Fi systems, nightclubs and bars. But new devices for listening to music such as MP3 players and the iPod can also damage hearing.

How does loud music affect the ear?

Your ear detects music as a series of sound waves which pass through the outer, middle and inner ear on their way to the brain. These sound waves are changed into chemical signals once they reach the inner ear which the brain then interprets. But constant exposure to noise or loud music gradually affects this process over time and results in temporary or even permanent hearing loss.

Hair cells within the cochlea (inner ear) can become damaged by amplified sounds over a long period of time. This then affects their ability to transmit sound waves to the brain which leads to problems with hearing certain sounds or following a conversation. And once these hair cells are damaged or destroyed they cannot be replaced. The problem is that this type of hearing loss is painless and gradually builds up over time so that once it becomes noticeable then it may be too late to do anything about it.

Loud music can also cause tinnitus, hyperacusis and acoustic trauma. Acoustic trauma is an immediate type of hearing loss caused by exposure to a very loud noise for a brief amount of time. Standing with your ear placed close to a speaker may cause this severe type of hearing loss.

Most of us have experience a temporary form of hearing loss after a night out in a club or at a music festival. This takes the form of ringing in the ears, muffled hearing and speech but this clears after a period of time. But imagine this on a day to day basis and for the rest of your life?

What do we consider to be ‘too loud?’

Basically any music which is so loud that you have to shout to make yourself heard when talking to someone; hurts your ears or causes a ringing sound in them is said to be too loud for comfort. We all enjoy listening to music at high volume but it is a case of knowing the fine line between loud and bearable and deafening and liable to cause damage.

MP3 players and iPods

You may not realise it but these technological devices can cause hearing loss. These portable music players are much more powerful than the portable CD players and the Walkman before that and there is a tendency to listen to music on these at a higher volume.

Another factor is that of the headphones. These music players come with a new style of headphone which consists of two tiny ‘earbud’style earphones attached to thin wire.

These are lighter, more comfortable and convenient but they cause more problems than the old style headphones as they just sit inside the ear and help to force sound towards the ear drum and inner ear.

Listening to music on one of these players at high volume for even an hour a day can damage your hearing. And a recent study has found that doing this for five years or more could cause permanent hearing loss.

Sound levels

Some personal music players can reach a volume of 105 decibels which is way over the recommended safety limit. Deafness Research UK state that sounds below 80 decibels are unlikely to cause damage but constant exposure over these levels will. So prolonged exposure to noise or music at 80 decibels and upwards will damage your hearing.

It’s easy to forget this when you are out jogging, on the train or any other similar situation but try and listen to your music at a reasonable volume. Or if you must have a ‘blast’then do this for a short time only. Use the volume control sensibly.

If you are sat at home then connect your mp3 player or iPod to speakers instead.

Preventing ear damage from loud music

We are not advocating that people stop listening to music; rather that they take a few simple precautions so that they will be able to continue to do so for a long time. These include:

  • Set the volume control on your mp3 player or iPod at a sensible level (no more than 85 decibels).
  • Give your ears a break; say a 5 minute break every hour you listen to music on a personal music player.
  • If you work in a club or bar then wear ear plugs.
  • Avoid standing near the speakers at a live gig or concert.
  • Use the ‘chill out’ areas in night clubs.
  • Have a day when you give your ears a complete rest from listening to music on a player or at a concert.
  • If the music is too loud at your gym then wear ‘noise-cancelling’ earphones which will block this out.
  • Reduce the number of live gigs or situations in which your ears are exposed to loud music.

And be aware of your environment. Most people enjoy listening to loud music in their cars but a confined space like this can have a detrimental affect on your hearing. So think about this when you are tempted to increase the volume.

You may enjoy driving around with the windows down and the music thumping but think about yours and other people’s hearing.

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