If you're a concert-goer or musician who has ever experienced the hearing loss that occurs after listening to loud music, you know how difficult it can be to function until your hearing returns to a relatively normal level. You might also know about how you're supposed to wear hearing protection such as earplugs. However, if you're also one of those concert-goers or musicians who refuses to wear hearing protection, you could be putting yourself at risk of losing part or all of your hearing permanently. A look at what your ears go through when exposed to loud noise might convince you that those earplugs really are necessary.
What Loud Noise Does to Your Ear
You may think of your ear as that fleshy thing you hang earrings off of, but the ear is really a long series of canals, compartments, and other structures that send sound waves up into your brain. The first half of the ear is mechanical; the vibrations that eventually become sound are ferried from part to part as each part pushes against another in a sequence. The second half is neurochemical; there's a place in an area called the inner ear where the mechanical movements cause one part to release neurotransmitter chemicals that your auditory nerve and brain interpret as sound. The chemicals correlate to specific frequencies, or pitches.
It's this point where mechanical movement becomes neurochemical where noise seems to have its effects. The vibrations have traveled into the inner ear where they cause fluid to start moving. The fluid passes over rows of tiny hair cells that move back and forth, as hair does in fluid. As these hair cells move, they release the chemicals.
Depending on how strong the vibrations are—the strength correlates to loudness—the fluid can move too quickly and too roughly, and that can damage or kill the hair cell. If the hair cell dies or becomes less mobile, the specific chemicals it releases are no longer available (or are reduced). The next time your ear sends sound to your brain, the frequencies linked to those dead hair cells will be absent or reduced, resulting in lower, more muffled sound.
What That Post-Concert Hearing Loss Really Is
When you seem to lose some hearing after a concert or exposure to other loud noise, but then the hearing comes back after a few hours, you're experiencing something called a temporary threshold shift. The threshold where you start to hear sounds has shifted to a different amplitude, or loudness level. The loud noise you listened to was loud enough to stun the hair cells, but not kill all of them off. When the hair cells recover from their stupor, they start working again.
What Can Happen After a Concert or Other Loud Noise Exposure
People tend to think they don't need hearing protection because their hearing recovers. Why have odd earplugs sticking out of your ears at a concert you want to hear, right? Here's the real problem: Sometimes those stunned hair cells don't recover. Or you kill a few off each time—not enough to really notice a difference when your hearing seems to come back, but enough to really make a difference over the years. You might think you're fine, but you're actually losing a bit of hearing each time you expose yourself to the loud noise. Eventually, you hit a point where your hearing doesn't seem to recover as well.
What Hearing Protection Does
Hearing protection, like earplugs, blocks a lot of the sound waves from entering your ear canal. If the sounds are loud, a lot of the waves will still get through, so you'll still hear the sound but at a reduced level. This is good because it preserves those hair cells and stops the post-concert hearing loss from occurring. If you keep doing that, you can preserve your hearing for many years. If you're a musician, you can get customized earplugs that let you hear everything while controlling the volume. Obviously, there are other ways you could end up with a hearing loss, but at the very least, this noise exposure won't be one of them.
Foam earplugs generally let in enough sound so that you can continue to hear everything a band is playing. Don't be embarrassed to wear the plugs. More and more people are becoming aware of what noise can do to hearing, and the plugs are becoming more acceptable. If you want more information on how to continue to enjoy music without sacrificing your hearing, contact an audiologist or hearing aid center today.
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