WHAT DID YOU SAY?
When you break your arm, you get a cast. When you cut your hand, you put on a bandage. But what happens when you are exposed to dangerous noise levels? Nothing others can see, but significant change happens within your ear!
The ear is made up of three areas: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. The outer ear consists of your ear canal up until your eardrum. This is where earwax lives (which is healthy by the way!).
The middle ear is the space between your eardrum and inner ear that has three tiny bones which function to transfer sound into your inner ear.
Last and definitely not least is your inner ear. It is made up of two parts: your cochlea for hearing and your vestibular system for balance.
The cochlea connects to the auditory nerve to send sound signals up to the brain. Both of these structures can experience damage when exposed to loud sounds.
After a certain amount of exposure, you can experience what is called a Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).
The American Hearing Foundation defines a NIHL as, “a permanent hearing impairment resulting from prolonged exposure to high levels of noise.”
For people between the ages of 12-19, it is reported that 1 in 5 experience a hearing loss, mostly due to noise exposure.
A NIHL is often caused by loud explosions like gunfire or fireworks, but also from extended exposure to loud music, such as at a concert or even in your headphones. Hearing loss creates difficulty with communication and can often lead individuals with hearing loss to avoid social situations. It’s hard to think about protecting your hearing while you have it, but it is something to protect now so that you’ll have it later!
Noise is measured with a unit called the decibel (dB), which was defined by and named after the famous scientist and engineer, Alexander Graham Bell. This is a unit of sound pressure level that helps audiologists, professionals who study hearing and hearing disorders, quantify the perception of different loudness levels perceived by the ear.
In general, decibels are used by a variety of professionals to measure a person’s hearing sensitivity level and to measure sound levels in different environments.
The decibel (dB) was created using logarithmic calculations, which means that small changes in the numerical value of the decibel represents large changes in actual perceived levels of sound loudness, which have the potential to cause damage to the ear. The chart to the right is a representation of different decibel (dB) levels recorded for different locations.
The chart used A-weighted sound pressure levels (dBA), which are used more in government regulations because they more closely resemble how individuals perceive sound loudness levels.
When thinking about noise levels in the workplace, unsafe levels of noise are defined as levels greater than 90 dBA over an 8-hour workday. Workers exposed to these levels are in danger of causing damage to their hearing over time. While many occupational settings have noise regulations set forth to protect workers’ hearing, recreational activities do not have standards to protect participants. This would include loud hobbies such as playing and/or listening to loud music, recreational shooting, or going to loud sporting events.
However, what is often missed even among these loud recreational events is exposure to loud levels of noise in physical fitness classes, specifically classes offered at universities.
GROUP FITNESS CLASSES
The Recreation Center has a large variety of group fitness classes such as cycling, boot camp, and step. These classes are typically held in a studio room with an instructor who leads the class with loud music in the background to help motivate the participants and each class is typically 30-50 minutes in duration.
While the music is intended to encourage participants, everyone should be aware of the volumes they are being exposed to during group fitness classes. A study was completed by Beach and Nie (2014) that investigated sound levels in various types of exercise classes from 1997 to 1998 and again from 2009 to 2011. The researchers measured sound levels for the duration of each class both for the participants and the instructors. They found the loudest class in the sample was recorded from a spin class at 98 dBA.
Based on this research, and as part of a class project, we decided to participate in a spin class in the Rec Center and take measurements using a sound level meter.
For the first class, the sound levels reached a max peak of 96.6 dBA and the second class was similar reaching a max peak of 94.5 dBA. These measurements align with the previously mentioned research and highlights the loud levels we are exposed to daily, without even realizing it.
The study concluded that instructors and participants teaching and/or attending two or more fitness classes a week could be at risk for noise induced hearing loss.
HEARING PROTECTION DEVICES
So what hearing protection is available for individuals exposed to loud levels of noise in the workplace or in recreational activities such as exercise classes? There are a variety of hearing protection devices (HPDs) available at your disposal to use recreationally or on the job. Even American Pharaoh, a triple crown horse winner, wears hearing protection!
Prior to discussing HPD options, there are a few things you can do to minimize your risk to hazardous noise levels in situations such as spin class. Luckily, these classes are only 30-50 minutes long so that in itself minimizes your risk to temporary hearing loss!!
Secondly, speakers are typically located in the corners of the room and by seating or placing yourself in the middle of the room, you provide space and distance between you and the speakers therefore reducing the high levels of noise reaching your ears.
Lastly, if you wear your own personal listening device (PLD), you may want to think about purchasing noise canceling headphones. Users tend to crank their own PLD or iPhones if you will, over the music being played on the loudspeakers and by doing this you increase your exposure to hazardous noise levels significantly. By purchasing noise cancelling headphones, you reduce the intense levels of music in the gym while allowing yourself to listen to your favorite song at a comfortable level!
When choosing an HPD in an industrial setting, foam earplugs are most often recommended (e.g 3M Classic EAR); however, proper insertion and perhaps even a brief training is needed to improve the function of the earplugs to maximize the protection they can provide.
In addition to hearing protection devices for industrial settings, there are devices made specifically for musicians. Musicians (i.e. in the Mobile Symphony or students in the marching band) want a reduction of sound across low and high pitches.
Music is very dynamic, meaning that there is a significant fluctuation of loudness levels and pitches in each piece of music. There are custom-made musician earplugs that help preserve this dynamic aspect of music that is so important to musicians.
Typical earplugs reduce sound differently at each pitch, which can negatively impact the dynamic aspect of music.
These musician earplugs reduce the sound the same at all the frequencies to keep the dynamic part of music unchanged.
ER 15 earplugs are an adequate solution to address the concerns of conductors and musicians alike. These custom ear plugs are not only for conductors or musicians; they can be used by anybody and worn at many events such as music concerts.
The USA Speech and Hearing Center is located on campus in the Allied Health building if you wish to check out some HPD’s or get your hearing checked out!
It is important to remember: Be aware of the sounds in your environment! We are all exposed to different levels of noise, and it is important to protect the hearing we have now.
Noise exposure can damage the innermost part of the ear, called the cochlea, and can lead to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).
NIHL affects about 1 in 5 young adults.
Those who have NIHL may have difficulty with speech understanding which can affect overall communication with those around us.
Hearing protection devices are an option for many different types of activities or settings. Some people will use them for their job, whereas others may use them recreationally such as musicians or hunters.
For more information on Noise Induced Hearing Loss visit: https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/noise- induced-hearing-loss.
If you have any questions or concerns about your hearing, you can visit the University of South Alabama Speech and Hearing Center on campus at the Allied Health Building or online at http://www.southalabama.edu/colleges/alliedhealth/speechandhearing/clinic.html.
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