Hearing loss is often thought of as a natural byproduct of the aging process. However, studies are beginning to show that hearing loss is becoming increasingly more common amongst younger people. Approximately, twenty-six million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have high frequency hearing loss due to chronic exposure to loud noise above 90 decibels (db), according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. If you are one of the millions of Americans who owns an MP3 player, then you might be at risk for hearing loss from headphones or earphones. Studies have shown that most MP3 players today can produce sounds up to 120 db and that long-term cell phone use may cause damage in the inner ear. In today's society, these devices are indispensible. However the hearing loss from headphones and earphones being used with them is not unavoidable. Simple precautionary measures such as decreasing the volume on your MP3 player or lessening the times spent talking on a cellphone with an earphone can prevent sustaining permanent hearing loss.
Overview of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is broadly classified into two categories: conductive and sensorineural, depending on which aspect of the auditory pathway is affected. Conductive hearing loss occurs as a result of any condition that interferes with the transmission of sound waves through the outer and middle ear to the inner ear. This type of hearing loss is treatable in most cases. Conversely, sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible and results when there is damage to the vestibulocochlear nerve in the inner ear. It most often occurs when the tiny hair cells (nerve endings) that transmit sound through the ear are injured, diseased, do not function properly or have prematurely died. Sensorineural hearing loss accounts for 90 percent of hearing loss, according to the Yale School of Medicine, and is caused by a vast array of factors including aging or prolonged exposure to very loud noise.
Long-term exposure to loud music can cause sensorineural hearing loss. Most MP3 players and other music devices today can produce sounds up to 120 decibels, equivalent to a sound level at a rock concert. According to Dr. Gartescki, chairman of Northewestern's Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, "It's enough to cause hearing loss after only about an hour and 15 minutes." Additionally, the use of earbuds (earphones) placed directly into the ear can amplify the sound signal by as much as six to nine decibels. The enhanced sound quality, portability and convenience of today's MP3 players translate into more time spent listening to music, and consequently, increased potential for hearing loss.
Cellphone users may also be at risk for developing sensorineural hearing loss. Findings from a preliminary study found that that people who talked on cell phones for more than a year suffered increases in the degree of hearing loss over the span of 12 months. Furthermore, the study also discovered that people who used their phones for more than 60 minutes a day were more likely to have high-frequency hearing loss. Specifically, this loss can make it difficult to hear consonants such as s, f, t and z, making it hard to understand words, according to WebMD.
Common symptoms of hearing loss include:
- Muffled hearing and a feeling that your ear is plugged.
- Trouble hearing in the presence of background noise such as when a radio is playing or in a crowd.
- Listening to the TV or radio at a higher volume than in the past.
- Tinnitus- ringing, roaring, hissing or buzzing in the ear.
- Itching or pain in the ear.
- Ear warmth.
To assess hearing loss, a doctor will initially perform a thorough physical exam and may also look in the ears with a small device called an otoscope. If the doctors suspects hearing loss, a series of hearing tests will be performed. These include:
- General screening tests: You will be asked to cover one ear at a time to see how well you hear words spoken at various volumes and how you respond to other sounds.
- Tuning fork tests: This test helps to assess the type of hearing loss incurred and is performed by placing the stem of a vibrating tuning fork in the center of the person's forehead. If the patient has normal hearing then the perceived sound is the same in both ears. However, if the patient has sensorineural loss in one ear, the unaffected ear perceives the sound as louder.
- Audiometer tests: These tests are usually administered by an audiologist and assess your ability to discriminate between different sound intensities, recognize pitch, or distinguish speech from background noise. For this test, the patient is asked to wear earphones and indicate when they hear a sound or word.
- Hearing aids: If hearing loss is due to damage to your inner ear, a hearing aid can be helpful by amplifying sounds and therefore making it easier to hear. An audiologist will discuss the potential benefits of using a hearing aid, recommend a device and fit you with it.
- Cochlear implants: For severe hearing loss, cochlear implant may also be an option. Unlike a hearing aid that amplifies sound and directs it into your ear canal, a cochlear implant compensates for damaged or nonworking parts of your inner ear.
Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible and therefore prevention is critical. When using headphones or earphones with your music or media player, Dr. Garstecki advocates the 60 percent/60 minute rule. He and other hearing specialists recommend using the MP3 devices, including iPods, for sixty minutes a day and at levels below 60 percent of maximum volume. Additionally, he suggests using older style, larger headphones that rest over the ear opening instead of earphones that are placed directly in your ear. "If music listeners are willing to turn the volume down further still and use different headphones, they can increase the amount of time that they can safely listen," Whether using headphones or earphones with your media device or cellphone, moderation is key. Avoiding excessive use of either of these listening devices will go a long way in preventing hearing loss.