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  • Hearing Protection

    By Phil O'Keefe |

    Music is an auditory art, and our ears are crucial to us. They are also easily damaged by overexposure to loud sounds, and once you lose part of your hearing, it is gone for good - which makes protecting our hearing absolutely essential.

    There are several options. (Fig. 1) Foam plugs are inexpensive and effective, but many musicians dislike the muffled high frequency sound quality. Muffs suffer from similar sonic gremlins. They are also more expensive, and look funky on stage, although for other noisy environments, such as mowing the lawn, they offer excellent protection.



    Fig. 1: A variety of hearing protection products, including muffs, foam plugs, and high-fidelity ear plugs

    Custom fitted plugs that are made from impressions of your ears are the most comfortable. They can be fitted with drivers so that they can serve double duty as in-ear monitors, but they tend to cost in the hundreds. Companies such as Etymotic and Hearos make high-fidelity, reusable earplugs that attenuate all frequencies by approximately 20dB, and provide much more natural sound quality than foam plugs. Best of all, they cost about the same as a pack or two of guitar strings. When things are loud, many people find it's actually easier to pick out individual sounds, such as their own instrument, while wearing such plugs, as opposed to when wearing no protection at all.

    There are even "designer" hearing protectors, like the ones by V-Moda that provide significant protection yet sit unobstrusively in your ears, and look like you're wearing regular earbuds (Fig. 2).


    Fig. 2: V-Moda's "Faders" are tuned earplugs with a detachable cord and carrying case.

    Regardless of which option you pick, it is important to always wear protection when you are exposed to loud sounds. Hammering nails, mowing the lawn, high-volume gigs and practice - whenever it's loud, protect yourself. Your ears will thank you for it!



    5329f41b3f2a5.jpg.289854c416dd6e4da636c0c072e01fb2.jpgPhil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines. 

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    Another thing to be aware of is the danger of getting on a plane (or diving) with a cold.   Most people who fly frequently have experienced the discomfort of having difficulty getting your ears to "pop" which is actually the process of equalizing pressure on both sides of your eardrum.  When you're healthy, this is relatively easy and can be accomplished by chewing gum, swallowing repeatedly, sipping a drink, or yawning. 

    But when your Eustachian tube is clogged up (it's the little tube that runs from your middle ear to your throat) it's not easy and sometimes even impossible to make your ears "pop." The result is pain (called barotrauma) which can be moderate to extreme.  You might even continue to have this pain and diminished hearing for hours or days after you get off the plane, if it's really bad.  Most people recover in a matter of hours or overnight.

    What most people don't know, though, is that the loss of hearing from inability to equalize pressure can be permanent.  Yes, permanent.  You could (though it's rare) lose ALL of your hearing in both ears.  Scary?  Yes it is.   What can you do to make sure this never happens to you?

    (1) Don't fly or dive when you have a cold.   This is the surest way to avoid barotrauma and the military will often ground a pilot who has a bad cold.

    (2) If you must fly, then take an oral decongestant (e.g. Sudafed) four hours before you fly and use an inhaled decongestant as well (e.g. Afrin).   This will likely be all you need to do to avoid barotrauma.  If you do experience difficulty in equalizing pressure, sip a drink, chew gum, etc, as swallowing opens the Eustachian tube.  DO NOT squeeze your nose closed and blow, as you can blow out the round window in your cochlea (hearing organ) and trust me, you really don't want to do that.

    (3) If despite all precautions, you arrive at your destination in extreme pain and with your ear still "blocked," understand that this is an EMERGENCY and head to the nearest ER to get help.  Likely you'll be given oral steroids that will open your Eustachian tube, and, in extreme cases, perhaps a steroid shot and even have a fine needle inserted through your eardrum to relieve the pressure.  The steroid shot is to relieve the swelling inside your cochlea, the organ of hearing.  Sometimes the shot is given through your eardrum, which sucks, but is still better than permanently losing your hearing.

    Knowledge is power.  I'd have given anything to know the above information prior to a flight I took in Sept 2007.  

    Take care of your hearing, there's no fixing nerve damage once it's happened!

    Terry D.

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