Of our five senses, it seems inconceivable to most people to give one up. It would be the ultimate Sophie’s Choice… sacrificing the ability to see, hear, touch, smell or taste. However, many people would agree that the two worst senses to lose would be vision and hearing. Unfortunately, they are also the two easiest senses to damage!
Hearing loss is a very real problem for many people, and can be caused by a number of different things. As we age, it often seems like hearing loss is “natural”, but it doesn’t have to be. Roughly 90% of hearing loss is caused by noises that go beyond the normal levels of our eardrums, the exposure to which we can typically control!
So, can sharp or loud sounds damage your hearing? Short answer… definitely, but there is a bit more to the explanation than that.
The Science of Sound
When our ears perceive sound of any kind – from the smallest whisper to the loudest siren – it is processed in the same order. Some of the smallest and most sensitive “machinery” in the body exists in the ears, including the body’s smallest bones, the ossicles in the inner ear, and we’ll explain their purpose in a moment.
When a sound wave is emitted, it is received by our cupped ear, travels through our ear canal and strikes the eardrum. The eardrum begins to vibrate and sends those vibrations to the three tiny bones of the inner ear (the ossicles). These three tiny bones are the stapes, malleus and incus. That sound vibration moving through air is then transferred to a vibration through liquid in the cochlea. The cochlea is shaped like a snail and is divided in half by a basilar membrane, which is where the key components of hearing are located.
The vibration in the cochlear fluid causes a ripple to pass along the hair cells on the basilar membrane. On top of those hair cells are even smaller hair-like structures called stereocilia, and when they move and bump into one another, microscopic channels open up. The open channel allows chemicals to rush into the empty space, which generates an electrical signal. Nerves take that signal straight to the brain, where it is translated into a sound (and a meaning) that we can interpret.
Sharp, Loud and Incredibly Dangerous
Now, the vast majority of sounds that we hear on a daily basis are not dangerous, and will leave our hearing in perfectly good condition. To put things in perspective, a normal conversation usually occurs at about 60 decibels, while the smallest whisper will be around 30 decibels. For perspective, every 10 decibels represents a power of 10 (60 decibels is 1,000x louder than 30 decibels).
If you live a relatively quiet life, and avoid industrial sites, rock concerts, in-ear headphones, lawnmowers, explosions, mining operations, airport runways, etc., then you probably don’t need to worry about noise-induced hearing loss. If you have this guy’s job though… you should be a bit worried.
That being said, there are two different types of hearing loss – conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss is caused by an actual mechanical problem in the ear, like a punctured eardrum or too much earwax building up. This type of hearing loss is usually easier to fix, either through a surgical procedure or natural remedy.
Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by one of two things, either acute noise damage, such as that caused by an explosion or a gunshot (decibels of 110-150), or long-term exposure to lower levels, such as industrial noise, mining, or loud music (85+ decibels).
Acute hearing loss can cause a rupture in the eardrum or permanent damage to the small bones (0ssicles) in the ear. Some acute hearing loss will fade after 1-2 days, such as the days following an intense rock concert, but others can be more permanent. However, studies have shown that even if the initial ringing or buzzing in your ears (tinnitus) may fade, it may still cause long-term damage or impairment. Tinnitus may become more constant or severe as you grow older, resulting in an overall lower level of hearing ability. Many people then turn to hearing aids to amplify sound, countering the damage done to the hearing mechanisms in your ears.
Sensorineural hearing loss is much harder to reverse than conductive hearing loss because it can also cause permanent damage to the stereocilia located on the hair cells of the cochlea. While some species of birds or amphibians can regrow these structures, as well as hair cells, human beings aren’t as lucky. Essentially, once these stereocilia are damaged or destroyed, they will never come back.
How Can You Protect Your Hearing?
It may sound obvious, but avoiding loud noises is one of the best ways to protect your hearing well into your old age. The wisest advice is to simply listen to your ears and respond accordingly. If a concert seems uncomfortably loud, move away from the speakers or wear earplugs to block some of the intense sound waves as they bombard your ears.
If you are in an industry that regularly exposes you to loud noises, be sure to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), which is commonly required in those jobs. Our knowledge of the risks to hearing health is greater than ever before, but it ultimately comes down to personal responsibility and awareness of being in an unnaturally loud environment.
When you are young, going to concerts or taking a trip to the shooting range may seem like fun and harmless activities, but it’s important to think about the long-term effects on your hearing. Losing the ability to communicate or interact normally with people and the world around you can be traumatic, so consider that before you push up next to the subwoofer at the next show you attend!
- National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
- The Naked Scientists
- Noise And Health