Most of us are grudgingly aware of the damage we inflict upon our livers on most weekends. Something which receives notably less attention though is the effect of loud noises on our ears. So, what auditory hangovers might follow a night on the town?
(They may regret having this much fun in a few years.)
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is just what it says on the tin. Any manner of loud noise, whether prolonged or brief can induce NIHL. The problem may be temporary or permanent. Short impulse noises, such as an explosion or a gunshot, tend to be associated with structural damage to the auditory system. This generally irreversible loss of hearing is the most common form of disability in military veterans.
Unless West Street Live gets particularly rowdy, you are unlikely to encounter gunshots on a night out. But clubs might entail a different kind of danger. Even a brief exposure of two hours can have an immediate effect on your hearing if the noise is loud enough. And clubs are certainly loud enough. Consider this: repeated exposure to 85 decibel noises can, in some people, trigger hearing loss. Clubs average around 100 decibels. This matches the action of a pneumatic drill and is scarily close to the noise produced by a jet taking off.
Let’s imagine the DJ has just played a blast from the past. What’s going on inside your ears? First off, those sweet Beyoncé soundwaves zoom down your ear canal and vibrate your eardrum. This vibration is then amplified by a series of bones before being transferred to a fluid-filled, snail-shaped organ called the cochlea. The fluid ripples. Hairs cover the cochlea and their combined wave action rubs open pore-like channels. Chemicals rush through these channels and it is the resulting electrical message which signals to the brain that if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.
Permanent damage occurs when the hairs covering the cochlea are damaged and die. Unlike mammals and birds, humans lack the ability to regenerate these hair cells. This, therefore, results in a loss of hearing sensitivity. This type of hearing loss could result from noise in a very loud club or a sustained exposure to loud music. It is the reason you might see bouncers or bartenders in clubs wearing earplugs.
The ear damage you are more likely to experience after a night out is called a temporary threshold shift. The human ear is remarkably tolerant to abuse (though it draws the line at Nicki Minaj). When exposed to loud noises the ear responds by reducing sensitivity accordingly. A temporary threshold shift is when the loss of sensitivity you experience lingers on for a period of time. This might be for a few minutes or even a few days after.
Temporary threshold shifts are, by their very nature, temporary. In the past, people thought this meant they weren’t harmful. More recently however, this perception has been overturned. It has been replaced with a stark truth: we are not looking after our ears well enough. Loud music could be the “asbestos” of our generation.
Consequences of our love for club music include the degeneration of nerve fibres concerned with hearing. It’s not just the loss of hearing itself which is a worry. The death of these nerve fibres leads to a lack of input into the auditory cortex. This can eventually mess up the circuitry in parts of your brain and bring about tinnitus. Tinnitus is a perceived ringing in the ear with no external source, and to those who suffer from it, the effects can be devastating.
To finish, it’s quite surprising how little coverage has been given to the detrimental effects loud music has on our hearing. Before writing this article, I had no idea of the scale of the issue. Workplaces where the noise exceeds 85 decibels are legally obliged to provide hearing protection. Yet in social environments where the noise is often far louder and more damaging than this, most of us aren’t even aware that a problem exists.
A recent campaign called plug’em is campaigning to reduce the stigma surrounding wearing earplugs at clubs and gigs. Maybe if we still want to hear properly when we’re fifty, we should take better care of our ears.