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Shooting Sports and Hearing Loss: 'Bang, Bang. Youre Deaf!'

In the midst of hunting seasons around the country, it seemed appropriate to take a look at what the boom hunters and other shooting enthusiasts enjoy so much is doing to their hearing. It aint good.

Exposure to gunshots, whether pistols, long guns or shotguns, does damage to the delicate hearing mechanisms located in the inner ear. A gunshot produces a loud burst of sound a concussive energy that rattles the ear drum, the little bones in the inner ear and the cochlea a fluid-filled, snail-shaped organ with thousands of tiny hair-like structures that convert sounds from the outside world into electrical impulses the brain can understand.

Its a complex system, one in which a single damaged unit can lead to hearing loss. Now, how much sound does a gunshot put out? Depends on a lot of things. For example, how close is the shooters ear to the source of the sound the shooting instrument? For example, a .22 caliber round will cause more ear trauma when fired from a rifle than a pistol. Why? Because when fired from the rifle, the boom is closer to the shooters ear, therefore capable of doing more damage.

A human whisper produces 25 decibels of sound (a decibel is the measurement used to determine how loud a sound is). A city bus pulling away from the curb produces 90 decibels (dB). A twin engine plane can pump out 110 dBs and listing to a live rock concert can put you in the middle of a 130dB rush the threshold of pain. So, given these numbers and the vagarities of shooting sports (rifle, pistol, cartridge, shell, etc.), we can comfortably say that, if youre the shooter, youre pumping more than 100 dBs down the ear canal each time you pull the trigger.

Protect Your Ears

The guy who mows my lawn wears ear cups over the ear sound protection to protect against the deafening sound of his industrial strength lawn mower thats so loud I cant talk on the phone while my lawn is being cut. Heres a smart guy who recognizes the danger of long-term ear trauma. Hes exposed to that monstrous mower eight to 10 hours a day.

But, as a hunter of game, you might only fire a single round. Cant do much damage, right? Wrong. Sound trauma has a cumulative effect. The more your ears are traumatized by the boom, the more damage youll do.

And consider other shooting sports enthusiasts. This involves more than a deer hunter who gets off 10 shots in a season. There are target shooters who use rifles and pistols often in enclosed spaces.

12-gauge shotguns are the weapon of choice for skeet and trap shooters and if you dont think those shells produce a concussive wave, try shooting a round of skeet. Your ears will be ringing for hours especially when youre playing as part of a foursome. Lets see, 25 clay pigeons in a round of skeet times four shooters in the space of one-half hour, your ears are exposed to 100 concussions.

Equipment

So what to do? Well, the answer is obvious. Protect the delicate inner ear mechanism using one of many options available. Your choice of which method of ear protection you wear depends on how often youre exposed to gun and rifle shot and personal preferences for wearing comfort.

Over-the-ear-cups provide excellent protection, blocking out the destructive sound waves produced by the shot of a rifle. However, many shooting sports enthusiasts find this ear protection uncomfortable. And since these cups block out most sound, carrying on a conversation while wearing them is almost impossible.

Another variation is ear muffs that rest on the outer ear. These are a bit more comfortable than cups and do provide a bit more hear-through when not in use, but theyre still bulky and inconvenient.

Many occasional shooters prefer the ear plugs available at most gun shops and even many hardware stores. These plugs are made from pliable rubber, flexible plastic or moldable wax so that the user can actually create a mold of his or her outer ear to provide good protection from ear trauma.

The best you can buy is worn by professional shooters. These men and women travel around to shooting competitions all over the globe. Some pistol or long gun target shooting and, of course, trap and skeet meets weekly. Here, its nothing but short-and-long-barrel shotguns.

These professional shooters are exposed to large bursts of noise almost daily so their choice of protection? These pros visit a hearing health care professional who makes a wax mold of the patients outer ear and ear canal. After that, the wax mold is converted to a custom rubber or plastic casing and loaded with noise cancellation software to lessen the impact of sudden bursts of sound on the mechanism of the ear.

And what makes these devices even cooler is the fact that they come equipped with an on/off switch. When the shooter is on the firing line, s/he flips a switch to block the loud noise of the gun. When the round is over, the shooter flips the switch back and hears normal conversation clearly.

These fitted ear plugs, with noise cancelling software and on-off switches are quite expensive and not needed for the occasional shooter. But if youre at the skeet range every Friday evening with the boys, consider the purchase of these most effective devices for ear protection.

By the way, you can buy some form of ear protection at gun shops, gun shows, the hardware store and even the pharmacy so, as a shooter, if youre not wearing ear protection each round fired diminishes your capacity to hear and guess what? Its only going to get worse.

Whos at Risk?

Well, obviously the shooter. If you didnt get that, please reread this article. But the shooter isnt the only person in danger during shooting sports activities.

Spotters people in the field who check targets during target shooting competitions are in danger. Judges and officials are in danger. The guy selling lemonade is in danger. And so are the spectators. Especially the young ones.

Sport shooters love their particular activity whether its stalking game or shooting clay pigeons out of the low house. And they tend to pass this passion on to their children, spouses and other friends and loved ones.

The spectator line is usually set back a ways from the actual target, trap or skeet range but each round fired produces a low-pitched boom that reaches the eardrum and does damage especially to young, developing ears. Damage to hearing that occurs during the early stages of life may have a life long effect on the individual.

Thats why everyone within ear shot should wear some kind of ear protection. And, if youve signed up your daughter or son to compete, then get the best ear protection you can afford. Dont just let them wear your ear cups. Each participant should have the right kind of protection to counter their individual exposure to the danger of ear trauma.

You can be shooting a gun at the National Field Trials, a great honor among shooters, or you can be pinging tin cans off the fence with an old .22 rifle you found in the barn. Doesnt matter. The boom is the boom is the boom and each one damages your ability to hear to one degree or another.

Its not expensive. Its not inconvenient. There are plenty of options for you and your family and, if you shoot for a living, you can even have a special ear mold protection device with its own on/off switch. How cool is that?

Whatever your shooting sport, take the normal precautions of gun safety but dont forget ear safety even if youre just a weekend spectator. Expect loud bursts of noise and protect yourself using some form of hearing protection.

It may not mean anything to you now, but when youre 45-years-old, being fitted for your first hearing aid, bet youre kicking yourself for not listening to sound advice.

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