Avid shooters, hunters, and sportsmen and women know that getting outside is one of the best ways to relieve stress. But, when it comes to your ears, these activities are anything but peaceful. In fact, they are one of the top ways to wreak havoc on your hearing.
Why is hearing protection important? The cumulative effect of our noise-filled days causes more than just mere communication frustration.
Most people know that one big explosion of sound can cause immediate, permanent hearing damage. But noise-induced hearing loss risk can actually be predicted by evaluating noise levels over a period of time to calculate a permissible daily “dose.” The louder the sound, the shorter the permissible dose of time. Volume + Duration = Damage. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends no more than 8 hours at 85 decibels (just above the average volume of an NYC subway). For 91 decibels (a hairdryer), the exposure time should be limited to two hours. At 106 decibels (leaf blowers, motorcycles, concerts), you’re down to four minutes before hearing damage is expected. Did you know that duck calls have been routinely measured at 120 decibels for which the permissible dose is a mere 7 seconds? Firearms, averaging 140-160 decibels, are off the NIOSH chart and considered to cause instantaneous damage.
Still, wondering whether this applies to you? These are daily allowances, so consider a day of drowning out coworkers with earphones, mowing the yard, going to the movies, then sleeping with a white noise machine on high and it’s easy to see how you can unknowingly far exceed your daily permissible dose of noise. It’s worth noting that we grow accustomed to sound (especially if it is music that we enjoy) and acclimate to it. Consider the TV analogy. After a noise-filled day like the one described, your brain needs the TV volume to be UP in order for your ears to feel the volume is adequate. After a quiet night’s rest, you turn on the TV and the 6 am news is BLARING. It didn’t seem that loud the night before!
I often hear, “I’ve been hunting and shooting guns for years and I can still hear fine as long as it’s quiet and you don’t mumble.” Hearing damage correlates to the pitch or frequency of peak exposure. For gunfire, we typically see a high pitch hearing loss or even a “noise notch” at the pitch of about 6,000 Hertz (usually worse in the left ear for right-handed shooters) while hearing for more bass, low pitch tones remains relatively normal. This leads to the common complaint of being unable to understand speech when background noise is present or that everyone else’s mumbling is the problem.
More Than Communication Frustration
If you’re struggling to hear, even if only struggling in noisy environments, this likely means more to your overall health than the inconvenience of asking others to repeat themselves. We hear with our brains, and lack of sound input means lack of brain stimulation to those areas meant for processing sound. That lack of input leads to the re-organization of neural pathways and significant correlations to dementia and cognitive decline. Specifically, research has shown an earlier onset of dementia and more rapid cognitive decline correlated to the severity of the untreated hearing loss. (For inquiring minds, a deeper dive can be found in this Audiology Today cover article written by yours truly).
It was my clinical niche’ and research interest in the cognitive effects of hearing loss while practicing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center that compelled me to create OtoPro. Most people wait an average of 7-10 years from the time they begin noticing a hearing problem before they seek treatment. My patients only came to me after the damage (often preventable) had already been done. With OtoPro, my goal is to prevent and delay that lack of brain stimulation while providing ideal, realistic protection so that you can continue to enjoy those worthwhile, albeit noisy, hobbies and occupations for life.
Decrease exposure time. The World Health Organization recommends the 60/60 rule: no more than 60% of mobile device volume for 60 minutes. If you’re a constant podcast-listener or AirPod audiophile, keep the volume at or below 60% of the max and give your ears a rest every hour. Even better, get notifications and track noise exposure on your iPhone or Apple watch.
Increase distance. In an open field, doubling the distance from a sound provides a reduction of 6 decibels. When you’re at the shooting range, stand at a distance until it’s your turn.
Consistently use well-fit hearing protection. Earplugs come in a vast array of price points and technology offerings. Even disposable foam earplugs can be good if worn properly. The problem with foam and any non-custom earplug are that they often don’t completely seal the ear canal, don’t stay in place with head and jaw movement, and are uncomfortable. With OtoPro, I counsel clients about their needs and source the best option available for their protection. These options range from solid custom silicone earplugs to a custom filtered “hear through” version, all the way up to custom rechargeable Bluetooth hearing enhancing earplugs. Yes, hearing protection can actually be enjoyable to use, can be multi-purpose, and can even benefit your hunt by allowing you to hear more!
Dr. Grace Gore Sturdivant is the founder of OtoPro. She earned her Doctorate of Audiology degree from Vanderbilt University Medical School and maintains professional certification through the American Speech and Hearing Association. A Grenada, Mississippi native, Grace is the daughter of an avid hunter and outdoorsman who instilled in her a respect for an understanding of responsible, recreational firearm use. She is all too familiar with the long-term effects of repeated exposure of noisy gunshots on hearing. With OtoPro, she seeks to aid hunters in communication and the ability to hear environmental noises while protecting from noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus.