by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A young lady explained,
About a week ago, I went to hear a band I like. It was a small venue, but I was in the back of the crowd. When they paused between sets, I immediately noticed that my hearing felt dull. When I got out my ears were ringing.
I have been to ever so many rock concerts back in college, and even saw this very band a couple years ago. I’ve never once had problems like this—never had ringing for even a few hours.
I am so panicked right now. It is a week later now and the ringing has largely stopped. It comes back for a few seconds a couple times a day in my right ear only. My right ear hearing feels worse than it did before, and, paradoxically, both ears are now more sensitive to sounds.
For example, everything ‘hurts’—my car stereo, the TV news and children’s voices! I teach elementary school, so I can’t really stay out of cacophonous rooms entirely. Even my own ‘teacher’ voice bothers me now.
My father nearly went deaf from directing airplanes, so I have seen what that road ahead looks like. Is this all just a prelude to seriously losing my hearing for good? Is there still a chance for recovery after a week? I am thinking about going out and buying earplugs and wearing them constantly, but is there really any point? I’m just going crazy about this. If there’s anything you could tell me I’d be very appreciative.
When you abuse your ears like you have in the past by going to loud rock concerts, your ears suffer damage. Sometimes they let you know right away—muffled hearing and tinnitus—and other times the damage is insidious—no obvious signs of damage.
Finally, one day, you go to a concert no louder than previous ones and much to your shock and horror—you experience loud, unceasing tinnitus and maybe permanent hearing loss.
This seems to be your case. All the times you have abused your ears has finally caught up with you. As a result, in the future you are always going to have to think of your ears or worse things can happen.
Fortunately for you, your tinnitus has largely calmed down after a week. Take that as a warning. The next time, the tinnitus may last a month or a year or forever! Your ears are not robust like they once were so you need to protect them from now on.
Your super-sensitivity to sounds also is not surprising. This is one common result of noise damage. You’d think you’d just lose some hearing, but to your dismay, you also find that the normal sounds you used to hear are now too loud—too shrill and strident—and may even hurt.
This goes by the fancy name of hyperacusis. It takes time for hyperacusis to go away—think weeks or months. During this time you need to protect your ears from loud sounds.
Think of the analogy of a bruise. You get hit and a bruise forms. It hurts. Now, if someone hits you on the bruise before it is healed up, it just makes matters worse and the bruise will take even longer to heal. Frequently hit the bruise, and it will never heal.
The same holds true with your ears. Every time you assault your ears with loud sounds you are “hitting the bruise” and it will just prolong the hyperacusis, and it may even become worse.
You have probably already lost significant hearing. Go to an audiologist and have a comprehensive audiological evaluation to confirm this. If you protect your ears in the future you can hope to hold the loss where it is now.
Thus, when you are going to be in noisy environments, it is wise to wear ear plugs to keep the sounds reaching your ears to acceptable levels. Acceptable is defined as sounds less than 80 decibels (dB).
Now this is very important. Do not overprotect your ears with ear plugs. If you do, you will make your hyperacusis worse and worse. Therefore, only wear ear protectors when sounds are above 80 or 85 dB.
Don’t go by how loud things sound because you now perceive normal sounds as too loud even though they are still under 80 dB. Such sounds do not hurt your ears even though they seem too loud to you and appear to hurt. The hurt you feel is based on your perception level, not on the level of the actual sound.