To understand how loud noises can damage our hearing, we have to understand how we hear. Hearing depends on a series of events that change sound waves in the air into electrical signals. Our auditory nerve then carries these signals to the brain through a complex series of steps.
- Sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through a narrow passageway called the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum.
- The eardrum vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear. These bones are called the malleus, incus, and stapes.
- The bones in the middle ear couple the sound vibrations from the air to fluid vibrations in the cochlea of the inner ear, which is shaped like a snail and filled with fluid. An elastic partition runs from the beginning to the end of the cochlea, splitting it into an upper and lower part. This partition is called the basilar membrane because it serves as the base, or ground floor, on which key hearing structures sit.
- Once the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling wave forms along the basilar membrane. Hair cells—sensory cells sitting on top of the basilar membrane—ride the wave.
- As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend. Bending causes pore-like channels, which are at the tips of the stereocilia, to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cell, creating an electrical signal.
- The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain, which translates it into a sound that we recognize and understand
Most NIHL is caused by the damage and eventual death of these hair cells. Unlike bird and amphibian hair cells, human hair cells don’t grow back. They are gone for good.
What are the effects and signs of NIHL?
When you are exposed to loud noise over a long period of time, you may slowly start to lose your hearing. Because the damage from noise exposure is usually gradual, you might not notice it, or you might ignore the signs of hearing loss until they become more pronounced. Over time, sounds may become distorted or muffled, and you might find it difficult to understand other people when they talk or have to turn up the volume on the television. The damage from NIHL, combined with aging, can lead to hearing loss severe enough that you need hearing aids to magnify the sounds around you to help you hear, communicate, and participate more fully in daily activities.
NIHL can also be caused by extremely loud bursts of sound, such as gunshots or explosions, which can rupture the eardrum or damage the bones in the middle ear. This kind of NIHL can be immediate and permanent.
Loud noise exposure can also cause tinnitus—a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears or head. Tinnitus may subside over time, but can sometimes continue constantly or occasionally throughout a person’s life. Hearing loss and tinnitus can occur in one or both ears.
Sometimes exposure to impulse or continuous loud noise causes a temporary hearing loss that disappears 16 to 48 hours later. Recent research suggests, however, that although the loss of hearing seems to disappear, there may be residual long-term damage to your hearing.
Can NIHL be prevented?
NIHL is the only type of hearing loss that is completely preventable. If you understand the hazards of noise and how to practice good hearing health, you can protect your hearing for life. Here’s how:
- Know which noises can cause damage (those at or above 85 decibels).
- Wear earplugs or other protective devices when involved in a loud activity (activity-specific earplugs and earmuffs are available at hardware and sporting goods stores).
- If you can’t reduce the noise or protect yourself from it, move away from it.
- Be alert to hazardous noises in the environment.
- Protect the ears of children who are too young to protect their own.
- Make family, friends, and colleagues aware of the hazards of noise.
- Have your hearing tested if you think you might have hearing loss.
What research is being done on NIHL?
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) supports research on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of hearing loss. NIDCD-supported researchers have helped to identify some of the many genes important for hair-cell development and function and are using this knowledge to explore new treatments for hearing loss.
Researchers are also looking at the protective properties of supporting cells in the inner ear, which appear to be capable of lessening the damage to sensory hair cells upon exposure to noise.
Credit: NIH Medical Arts
The NIDCD sponsors It’s a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing®, a national public education campaign to increase awareness among parents of preteens about the causes and prevention of NIHL. Armed with this information, parents, teachers, school nurses, and other adults can encourage children to adopt healthy hearing habits.
More about Beverly Hills Hearing Center, Beverly Hills, California
Need your questions answered? We are here for you at Beverly Hills Hearing Center, 9100 Wilshire Blvd, Ste 310 E, Beverly Hills, California 90212. We are open Monday-Thursday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call for an appointment: +1 310-276-8585
We have been serving the hearing needs of the community for more than 30 years. Most of our referrals come from physician’s offices and previous customers. We provide a variety of hearing health care services in a friendly professional atmosphere. We are known for the quality of care we provide and always go the extra mile for our customers.
Beverly Hills Hearing Center provides a comprehensive array of services related to prevention, evaluation, and rehabilitation of hearing impairment. These services include comprehensive hearing evaluations, specialized diagnostic testing, Impedance audiometry, real ear measurement, acoustic reflex testing, and industrial hearing screenings. Furthermore, our services are not only for people who have hearing problems. The practice offers custom made hearing protection for musicians, hunters and people who work or sleep in a noisy environment. In addition, custom made in the ear monitors are available for musicians. Custom fitted earpieces for hands-free cellular phone operation, MP3 users and Blue tooth devices are also now available.