Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Well ear plugs seem to be the answer to all our hearing-loss woes, according to this short new piece I came across on CNN. The author suggests wearing earplugs during incredibly noisy tasks as well as everyday ones, which is ok, but rather unrealistic. Who’s really going to drop hundreds on custom ear-plugs, or wear plugs during aerobics (yeah, they fall out), or during a rock concert where you want to *enjoy* the music, not muffle it. And the author also brings out the tired song and dance about earbuds/iPods being bad for your hearing (they aren’t any worse than previous technology, and aren’t bad at all if used sensibly). She also accepts at face-value Pete Townshend’s claims that headphones (and not hundreds of ridiculously loud, earth-shattering concerts) ruined his hearing.

I usually dislike popular news articles about hearing loss since they end up being alarmist and over-reliant on anecdotal evidence. The author might have noted that one way to prevent hearing loss would be to take an aspirin or vitamin E, which reduces hair cell damage in response to noise. Or that genetic hearing loss in response to a lack of connexin may be reversible, not to mention hair cell regeneration studies. Or how melanin (skin pigment) levels mean people may be more or less susceptible to hearing loss? Guess its just more fun to listen to Pete Townshend.

Ear plugs are certainly useful, but thats not the end of the story. Someone report with a bit more depth, please!


  1. #1 kat
    April 11, 2007

    OK, so I agree with you that earplugs during everyday activities are a little ludicrous, but wearing earplugs at rock concerts can actually, in my experience, make the music sound better by attenuating the high frequencies. At rock-concert levels, you’re getting all the sound information you need through your skull, so protecting the eardrum and middle ear from really loud noises helps filter the noise from the music. Plus you’re not cringing the whole time, worrying about how long the tinnitus is going to last…

    That isn’t to say that CNN doesn’t know squat about hair cell toxicity, or that the article couldn’t have been better. your main complaint reminds me of these billboards they had up all over Seattle a few months ago that warned that the rates of MS are higher in the northwest than anywhere else in the country, then asked rhetorically if it was the rain, and linked to a website. NOWHERE on the website did it mention the correlation between sunlight and vitamin D and MS. I thought that was just irresponsible, even though it hasn’t been conclusively proven that sunlight exposure reduces your risk of MS, shouldn’t they at least make people living in the rainy NW that getting out in the sun every now and then is a good thing?? aargh.

  2. #2 Shelley
    April 11, 2007

    Yes, yes, if you’re at a concert where you’re *cringing* definitely put those earplugs on! Especially if you attend them often. But for some people (me included), you either stand some distance away from the speakers or don’t attend loud concerts to frequently. Ear plugs in a not-TOO-loud music concert interferes w/ my enjoyment, so I just tend not to bother unless it gets ridiculous. But if I went more often or it was cringe-worthy, I’d certainly wear them.

    Didn’t know about the link between sun and MS, interesting.

  3. #3 Mark
    April 11, 2007

    I am a firm believer in wearing earplugs for protection of hearing. It came home to me on a cross-country motorcycle trip years ago when my ears rang after every day, and that was with a quiet BMW from wind noise alone. Now I use them when I mow the lawn or use any power tools. I wear them plus earmuffs when I use my chain saw. If I attended rock concerts I would wear them. I have found that the bell-shaped foam plugs are effective and comfortable. I have seen the effect of hearing loss on both my parents and my in-laws. Some of that is probably unavoidable age-related, but some is the result of exposure to loud noises, or even not so loud noises over long periods. It’s easy to ignore the risk when you’re young, but if you wait till you’re older, it’s too late.

  4. #4 Shelley
    April 11, 2007

    Yep, absolutely, hearing should be protected. As of now, hair cells cannot be replaced–we’re born with all we’ll ever have. Certainly if people want to wear earplugs 24/7, they might spare their hearing somewhat in old age. However, they might also miss out on a lot of life or what people are saying to them. Loud noises like motorcycles, drills, etc, good to use earplugs. My complaint is that there is a lot more to the issue of both prevention and treatment that popular press leaves out. Its not ALL about earplugs.

  5. #5 Mark
    April 11, 2007

    Well, the ear/brain system is amazing. My mother worked in a textile plant. When she walked through the spinning rooms the noise was so loud she could hear nothing else. But the workers ther talked to each other in normal tones and could hear the conversations.I am sure any of them still alive are quite deaf. Back when I drove relatively noisy cars, I found I could listen to the radio with my earplugs in and the sound was so much better because most of the background noise was reduced. I certainly wouldn’t wear earplugs while I ride my bike because of the need to hear things in my environment. And I wouldn’t and don’t wear them in everyday, casual situations. But, if your ears ever ring, you should have been wearing them (assuming no other physical cause).

  6. #6 arby
    April 11, 2007

    I read several years ago that aspirin (or other pain reliveing drugs that cause tinnitus) can INCREASE the damage to the ears when taken before exposure to loud sound. I never take them when I operate the tiller or chainsaw etc. My personal favorite plugs are wads of dampened tissue.

  7. #7 Shelley
    April 11, 2007

    It seems to dose dependent: large amounts of aspirin damage while normal/low doses protect. The research is below:

    “Recently, NIDCD-supported scientists have demonstrated that antioxidants, salicylate (aspirin) and Trolox (vitamin E), could be administered as much as 3 days after noise exposure and still significantly reduce hearing loss. In this study, guinea pigs were exposed to noise at 120dB (equivalent to the noise level of a jet engine) for 5 hours and given antioxidants by injection from 3 days prior to 5 days after the noise exposure. The study showed that earlier treatment was more effective than delayed treatment. Aspirin and Vitamin E administration up to 3 days after noise exposure significantly reduced the extent of hearing loss, hair cell damage, and the amount of free radicals produced following noise exposure.”

  8. #8 arby
    April 11, 2007

    Great! Thanks, rb

  9. #9 kirkmc
    April 12, 2007

    Custom ear plugs don’t cost hundreds of dollars; a few dozen dollars at most.

    Interestingly, classical musicians – at least those in orchestras – almost all wear them now. You’d be surprised at the decibel level of a bench of French horns, or even a string section!

  10. #10 Frank the SciencePunk
    April 12, 2007

    I’m one of those people who shelled out hundreds for custom made, flat-attenuating earplugs. I bought them because the doc told me I had a level of hearing loss not normally seen in people under 40 – I was 24 at the time!

    This damage is exclusively from attending loud concerts – I’m constantly fighting the attitude that using earplugs at gigs “ruins” the music – a fairly decent pair of flat-attenuating plugs can be picked up for $20.

    Hearing loss is a broad subject, but don’t underestimate how easy it is to lose the music.

  11. #11 Blas
    April 15, 2007

    Are headphones so bad if you use them at low/moderate volume?.

    I use them all day (those small inner ear Sony Fontopia type).

    Another problem with noise is the from transit, it is there even if you do not notice it or pay attention. I think it adds stress. I live in a noisy part of the city, levels above recommended.

    I wish I could buy those earphones that cancell noise, but they are expensive.

    I still donīt get new posts via the email subscription.

  12. #13 Blas
    April 16, 2007

    Frank the SciencePunk can you post a link for your earplugs? or brand name?.
    Are they similar to any of the two showed here (one expensive)?

    Today I slept with foam earplugs. It makes a difference as noise starts early in the streets.

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