Earplugs are being used as prophylactics or the new rubbers
I remember the first time I saw someone wearing earplugs casually. My friend Christa and I were at a rock concert at Pacific Standard Tavern, which boasts New Haven’s most modern sound system outside of College Street Music Hall, when I noticed two blue cones protruding from her ears.
My first response was alarm. Christa went to more concerts than anyone I knew. I felt betrayed, as though the earplugs were an admission that Christa really was not there for the music, just for the scene.
You have something in your ears, I told her.
She turned and said, “I know.”
I barely heard her with my naked ears. I realized I hardly heard myself. But she had heard me.
From small clubs to big theaters, music shows have been getting louder for at least a generation. But earplug use hasn’t caught up. Is it starting to? Are they the new rubbers?
In between songs, music fans are having that debate.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, hearing protectors enhance speech comprehension in loud places the way sunglasses enhance vision in extreme brightness. The rule of thumb is that noise damages your hearing if you are at arm’s length and have to shout to make yourself heard.
So basically, every rock, rap, or electronic concert I have ever been to has subtly chipped away at my inner ear.
Christa started wearing earplugs after a music festival friend of hers developed a nasty case of tinnitus, a constant ringing in your ears that makes it nearly impossible to sleep without some sort of white noise — an open window, a television humming — to mitigate the high-pitched whine in your head.
Studies haven’t conclusively documented the benefits or earplugs, but do suggest that they do eliminate at least some short-term hearing loss, according to this report from Reuters. One key factor: Using them right.
In an interview with the Independent, Dr. Elias Michaelides, director of theYale Center for Hearing and Balance, confirmed research indicating that as many as one in five teens suffer from hearing loss, and those numbers are only getting worse. The latest study, from JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, concludes that loud music at live events is at least partly responsible for that loss.
“We don’t know if younger ears are more vulnerable,” Dr. Michaelides said, “but when you are young you still have a hearing reserve so you might not notice the damage at all.” Damage can be caused by the cumulative effects of loudness over time, not just noise trauma. The inner ear never regenerates.
Michaelides explained exactly what is happening when your ears start ringing.
“Essentially, the cochlea of your inner ears contain long rows of haired cells,” he said. When these hairs pick up vibrations from sound waves, those are converted into nerve signals. Really loud sound damages the cell hairs through over-stimulation. The eardrum only tears when it pops, which is unusual unless you are standing close to a grenade or smacked directly in your ear.”
It’s not hard to understand how these cell hairs get overstimulated. The distortion in the sound in this video from a (really good) Mates of State show at BAR is because of the sheer volume of the music, and this video was shot from behind the house’s speaker, not in front of it.
Michaelides regularly sees the worst cases, those who come in after days or weeks of constant ringing. His patients often admit that the last show they went to was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Hearing protection is a valid medical preventative precaution,” he said.
Medical plans rarely cover earplugs; if musicians declare their creative income, earplugs should be tax deductible. Prescription earplugs can range into the hundreds of dollars, but many are happy with what they’ve gotten. The over-the-counter versions are cheaper — a pack of 14 pairs of foam earplugs runs about $5 at Walgreens — but they are possibly too effective. Alternativeky, a really good pair of earplugs can be purchased from Amazon.