Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Among the many types of hearing loss, two are the most common: age-related hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss. Though they share many qualities, both being classified as sensorineural hearing loss that occurs in the inner ear, noise-induced hearing loss is a special case. What we know about the physics of sound and the anatomy of the ear help us understand how it occurs, how to protect against it, and what can be done about it in terms of treatment. Let’s consider each of these in terms to better understand noise-induced hearing loss. 

What is noise-induced hearing loss?

As we know, the ears do not blink like the eyes do. From birth to death, our ears encounter a constant stream of sound, ranging from the quiet peaceful environment of a bedroom at night to the loud noises of work and play. The tiny hairlike organelles of the inner ear called stereocilia are specifically tasked with responding to the slightest differences in sonic frequencies, and that sensitivity is crucial for them to perform their hearing function. However, that same sensitivity also puts them at risk from very loud sounds. With soundwaves hitting the ear as vibrations of pressure, loud sounds are basically high-pressure assaults on these sensitive organelles. When the stereocilia are impressed with too much sound pressure for too long a duration, they can become bent, broken, or otherwise damaged, which we know as noise-induced hearing loss. 

How can I protect myself from noise-induced hearing loss?

With these sensitive organelles at risk, there are many steps you can take to reduce the likelihood they will become damaged. Workplaces are some of the most common sites of hearing damage through noise exposure. Although our minds go immediately to noisy factories, industrial sites, or mechanics’ workshops, these are not the only workplaces that can emit dangerously loud sounds. Even bars and restaurants with background music and a loud din of voices can produce damagingly loud sound for those who work there for hours on end. 

The damage that occurs to the stereocilia requires a certain amplitude of volume as well as a duration of time to cause its effect. A relatively loud sound might be endured for a second or two, but even a few minutes can be enough to cause permanent damage. For these reasons, it is crucial to wear hearing protection in any loud workplace. Disposable foam earplugs can reduce the overall decibel level of noise by at least 10 decibels, which may be enough to protect your hearing, but louder places require more advanced forms of protection. Custom-fitted earplugs do a great job blocking out the damaging frequencies while retaining the ability to converse in the workplace. Another crucial form of protection is limiting your time with headphones and earbuds. With the ability to produce damaging frequencies in as little as a few minutes, devices at maximum volume are at a high risk for permanent noise-induced hearing loss. Children and young people are particularly at risk, imagining that their hearing is the least of their worries. Limit the maximum volume to roughly 70 percent to protect against this type of self-inflicted loss. 

Is there treatment available for noise-induced hearing loss?

Although current medical technology has not discovered a way to regenerate the cells of the stereocilia once they have been damaged, we do have excellent assistive technology to fill in the gaps of hearing with treatment. Hearing aids work by raising the volume on specific frequencies that are missing due to hearing loss, and they can amplify those sounds to a level that is audible. 

A hearing test diagnostic is used to identify which sounds are missing from an individual person’s hearing profile. When these tones are targeted, hearing aids can work to supplement the volume on only the sounds that are most needed, without amplifying background noise or other sounds at the same time. If you have undiagnosed noise-induced hearing loss, the first step is to get a hearing test. This simple and painless exam will help identify which frequencies are difficult to hear. After we know what sound needs amplification, we can pair you with the right set of hearing aids to bring up the volume where noise has already done its damage.