"Can you hear me now?" This was a phrase made popular by a cellular phone company as they promoted their ability to communicate in a variety of locations. Hearing is important for communication and learning. The information below can help you protect your hearing now so that you can also hear sounds later.

Headphones and hearing loss
Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable
The amazing ear
Loud noises hurt your ears
Hearing loss often happens as we age

Headphones and hearing loss – are you at risk?

More people are using headphones today than ever before. Cell phones, iPods and MP3 players make it easy for us to take our music, audio books and telephone calls on the go with us.

But is all that headphone activity damaging our hearing?

It could be. Headphones pose the danger of noise-related hearing loss from loud music or loud voices. This damage usually occurs over time, but now doctors are reporting that people in their 20s and 30s have noise-related hearing loss.

"Most cases of hearing loss are a result of wear and tear on the tiny hair-like cells, called cilia, in the inner ear that transmit sound," said Nancy J. Huebler, AuD, CCC-A, a Marshfield Clinic audiologist on staff at Ministry Our Lady of Victory Hospital in Stanley.

Signs of hearing loss are often described as hearing muffled sounds, having a problem filtering background noise, or needing to increase the volume to hear. However, simply amplifying the sound is not always helpful; some frequencies may be too loud and others too soft. The result is the ability to hear, but not understand.

If you suspect hearing loss, see your health care professional for a hearing test, which is typically painless.

The National Institutes of Health offer some insight into the hearing loss caused by music. Today, many adults and children alike are exposed to loud music through iPods, iPhones and MP3 players. Often runners, cyclists and walkers use music to motivate them to keep moving. But music that is too loud can cause damage. Subjecting cilia in your ears to loud sounds too often can damage them ... and they cannot grow back.

Normal talking registers 40 to 60 decibels (dB). Headphones crank the noise level up to 110 dB. If you listen to music over 85 decibels for an extended time you put yourself at risk for hearing loss, especially if you have a family history of hearing loss.

If you are listening to music or a conversation on your iPod, cellphone or MP3 Player, your volume is too loud if a person standing next to you can hear the sound coming through your headphone.

When to call the doctor

You may need to see your health care provider if you are having difficulty hearing certain sounds. You should get checked if you have any of the following symptoms.

  • It is harder to hear high-pitched sounds.
  • It’s hard to understand high-pitched voices.
  • When people speak to you, it sounds mumbled or slurred.
  • You have to adjust the radio or television volume to hear.
  • You have a ringing or a full feeling in your ears.
  • You have ringing or "muffling" in your ears for more than 24 hours after exposure to loud music.

If you experience any of these, contact your health care provider and ask about a hearing test or have your hearing checked by an audiologist.

You may not be able to restore your hearing, but you can get assistance making the most of the hearing that you have.


Noise-Induced Hearing Loss is Preventable

Noise-induced hearing loss is usually gradual and painless but, unfortunately, permanent. Once destroyed, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cells do not repair.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noise-induced hearing loss can be prevented – and it is fairly simple to protect yourself from loud sounds.

Here are three easy tips from the CDC that will help you protect your ears and maintain your ability to hear.

  • Limit your exposure to loud sounds. Wear ear protection when using power tools, mowing the lawn or doing other work or hobby activities that create a loud noise.
  • Turn down the music – especially if you are wearing headphones or ear buds. Loud music will damage the cilia in the ear. Set personal listening devices at half volume or less.
  • Move away from loud sounds when possible.

High quality earplugs or noise blocking earmuffs may reduce noise by 15 to 30 dB when they are fitted correctly. For added protection, you can use earplugs and earmuffs together if you are exposed to high decibel levels.

Hearing loss in adults can make communication challenging and in the worst case, impossible without the help of a hearing aid. Hearing loss in younger children can make learning difficult. Noise related hearing loss is preventable.


The Amazing Ear

Your ear is an amazing processor. It picks up the sounds in the environment and translates that to meaningful information so we are able to understand the world around us.

Fully developed at birth, the intricate bones and parts of the human ear respond to faint, loud, low-pitched, and high-pitched sounds.

There are three parts to your ear – the outer ear, middle ear and the inner ear. Each one plays an important part in your ability to hear.

  • The outer ear includes the fleshy part of your ear, your ear canal and eardrum. When you hear a sound it creates a pressure that travels down the ear canal and strikes the eardrum causing it to vibrate.
  • Behind the eardrum is the middle ear. The space of the inner ear is called the tympanic cavity. It contains three small bones called ossicles – we sometimes refer to these bones as the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup because of their unique shapes. These tiny bones connect the outer ear and inner ear changing the sound pressure from the eardrum into vibrations that cause the fluid in the inner ear to move.
  • As the fluid in the inner ear (cochlea) moves, it causes changes in tiny structures called hair cells or cilia. This movement of the cilia creates electrical signals that are sent to the auditory nerve and are transmitted to the brain where these electrical signals are interpreted as sound.


Loud noises hurt your ears

Since hearing starts with sound pressure, it makes sense that loud noises can be very damaging to hearing. As the pressure of the noise vibrates the eardrum and tiny bones, the movement of the inner ear fluid damages the cilia.

The louder the noise and the longer you listen the more damage is done in the inner ear.

Sounds are measured in decibels, or dB for short. The higher the decibel, the louder the sound. Studies show that exposure to sounds louder than 85 dB for long periods of time can cause permanent noise related hearing.

So, how loud is too loud?

There are five indications that the noise may be too loud.

1. You have to raise your voice to be heard by someone standing close to you.
2. You cannot hear someone three feet away from you.
3. The noise causes pain.
4. You develop ringing or buzzing in your ears.
5. Your hearing is worse for several hours after you were exposed to the noise.

The noise chart below lists average decibel levels for everyday sounds around you.

Sound loud enough to cause pain

  • 150 dB – Fireworks three feet away
  • 145 dB – Boom box in cars
  • 130 dB – Gun shots or jet plane taking off
  • 120 dB – Siren, thunder or boom box
  • 110 – 140 dB – Rock Concerts
  • 110 – 125 dB – Stereo
  • 110 to 115 dB – Most music devices, with ear buds add another 5 dB

Regular exposure to extremely loud sounds for one minute can damage hearing

  • 110 dB – Powersaw, symphony orchestra, jackhammer, chain saw, remote controlled airplane
  • 106 dB – Gas-powered lawn mower
  • 105 dB – Snowmobile

Exposure to very loud sounds for 15 minutes creates a risk of hearing loss

  • 100 dB – Train, garbage truck, hand drill
  • 98 dB – Farm tractor
  • 97 dB – Newspaper press
  • 90 dB – Subway, passing motorcycle, blow-dryer
  • 80 – 90 dB – Kitchen blender or food processor
  • 88 dB – Motorcycle
  • 85 – 90 dB – Lawnmower
  • 84 dB – Diesel truck
  • 80 – 90 dB – Recreational vehicle

Moderate noise levels are safer

  • 80 dB – Garbage disposal, city traffic
  • 78 dB – Washing machine
  • 75 dB – Dishwasher
  • 70 dB – Vacuum cleaner, alarm clock, hair dryer
  • 60-65 dB – Laughter
  • 60 db – Clothes dryer
  • 50-65 dB – Normal conversation
  • 50 dB – 60 dB – Quiet office, moderate rainfall
  • 40 dB – Quiet room, rushing stream, refrigerator

Faint noises levels maybe harder to hear with hearing loss

  • 30 dB – Whisper
  • 20 dB – Rustling leaves, mosquito
  • 10 dB – Normal breathing

*Source: www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/parents/athome.htm, www.lhh.org/noise/facts/environment.html, and www.asha.org/public/hearing/Noise/


Hearing loss often happens as we age

About three quarters of Americans age 75 and over have some degree of hearing loss. But, according to the National Institutes of Health, only 20 percent of those who need a hearing aid are wearing one.

There are two main reasons for this: image and cost. Many seniors worry that a hearing aid will make them look and feel "old." Others do not have the hundreds or thousands of dollars to purchase a hearing aid that generally is not covered by Medicare.

According to Nancy J. Huebler, MA, CCC-A, FAAA, an audiologist with Marshfield Clinic and a visiting specialist to Ministry Our Lady of Victory Hospital, "Poor hearing usually develops slowly over a number of years, and gradually worsens."

Regardless of severity, the first step is to talk to your health care provider. The problem may be simply a buildup of earwax, which can be removed. Your provider can also check for an ear infection, ruptured eardrum, tumor or abnormal bone growth that may be interfering with hearing.

Hearing loss can be the result of prolonged exposure to loud noises, illnesses (such as meningitis) or medications (such as gentamicin). Genetics will make some people more vulnerable to hearing loss than others.

Although your health care provider can rule out an external or middle ear pathology, a referral to an audiologist is needed to determine the nature of the hearing loss and make recommendations for dealing with it.

An audiologist is a doctor of audiology (AuD), a university-trained health care professional that specializes in hearing and hearing sciences. Audiologists provide a wide variety of services, including: preservation of hearing, identification of hearing loss, rehabilitation by way of hearing aids, treatment of tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and identification and management of balance disorders.

Audiologists are able to evaluate patients of all ages and can assist you in better understanding, and maximizing your hearing abilities. An audiologist will examine your ears, ask you questions and perform a variety of tests.

"One result of a hearing test is an audiogram, which is a graph indicating the softest sounds you can hear at various frequencies, from very low pitches to very high pitches, in each ear," said Huebler.

Sound is measured in both frequency (pitch) and intensity. The human ear can hear frequencies between 16 and 20,000 hertz (Hz) or vibrations per second. Normal conversation in a quiet place is in a mid-range of 500 to 6,000 Hz. Loudness is measured in decibels (dB). A whisper is 20 dB and normal conversation about 50 to 60 dB.

Treatment recommendations are based on the severity and nature of the hearing deficits measured against an individual’s lifestyle and needs. If you spend most of your time in one-on-one conversations in a quiet environment, some deficits might not be very significant. If you have been prompted by others to have a hearing test, however, your problems are undoubtedly affecting your quality of life and your social interaction.

"If it’s simply a matter of needing higher sound volume, assistive listening systems can help." said Huebler. "Telephones can be amplified or captions can be provided. Door bells, smoke alarms and alarm clocks can be altered so that they vibrate or flash as well as ring." There are federal funds to help people with hearing loss purchase these devices so that they do not have to bear the brunt of the costs on their own.

Huebler explained, "A hearing aid is designed to amplify sound at the frequencies where there is a deficit. There is a wide range of companies and prices that an audiologist can utilize to fit your needs. Audiologists are ethically bound to provide services that are in their patient’s best interest, and will help you to select the best possible technology available in your price range."

There is no need to be left out of social situations or guess what others are saying. Whether hearing loss is mild, moderate or severe, help is available.


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