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Could your exercise program be causing hearing loss?

Contributed by | Monday, January 25th, 2016

With the New Year upon us, it is likely that many of you have resolved to finally start exercising, and to make this the year to get fit. Perhaps spring break is looming, and you have visions of finally getting that buff beach body you always wanted. Or maybe you just want to start exercising more for your overall health. There is no denying that exercise is beneficial to the body and mind. But be careful, because that new fitness routing might come with an unpleasant side effect: hearing loss.

Man concentrating, using weight machine
Straining or holding your breath
during exercise can cause pressure
to build up in the inner ear.

One fitness program in particular, which is rapidly gaining a cult following across the nation, can also have negative consequences for your hearing if you are not careful. CrossFit, which is a training program first used by the police and military special forces, is a high intensity workout that combines weightlifting, cardio, core training and more. Designed to push the body to its limits, CrossFit can deliver results in the form of peak physical fitness. But some participants are paying a high price for getting in shape.

Two common practices to avoid

You may be asking, “What does exercise have to do with my ears?” To illustrate, let’s look at two common practices that can occur during the weightlifting portion of CrossFit. The first of these is straining. Straining causes intracranial pressure (pressure within the brain) which in turn leads to pressure within the ears. The next is breath holding, which some swear gives them an extra boost in weight lifting by solidifying the core and supporting the spine. However what happens when you hold your breath? More pressure in the inner ear.

The pressure in the inner ear can lead to changes in the hearing during or after intense exercise as a result of a perilymphatic fistula, or PLF, which occurs unexpectedly and which most people aren’t aware of right away. Simply put, a PLF is a small tear or defect in the thin membrane between the inner ear and the middle ear. The tear itself can be caused by the pressure in the inner ear due to straining; hearing changes occur when the strain of subsequent workouts causes fluid from the inner ear to leak through the tear and into the middle ear.

It's not just CrossFit

CrossFit isn’t the only culprit, certainly. Though devotees of CrossFit in particular, due to the culture in which participants are encouraged to strain themselves to the absolute limits, need to be mindful of the risks to their hearing, other forms of exercise can cause strain as well. Even running or intense yoga poses can cause changes in hearing. And any exercise in a gym setting can bring the risk of hearing loss. The crashing weights and loud music which have become the norm in gyms everywhere can lead to irreversible noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus.

“I never actually took a sound level meter to the smashing of weights in a weight room, but it is likely that even short durations of loud intense weights dropping, can have the same potential damage to hearing as a shotgun blast or an air bag deploying,” said Rachel Raphael, M.A., CCC-A, an audiologist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and a certified group fitness instructor. “If in fact, the smashing weights are in this range for volume, it wouldn't take much for the person at close range to suffer permanent damage, in the way of high frequency sensorineural hearing loss and/or tinnitus as a symptom secondary to the damage in the cochlea.”

Dos and don'ts for healthy hearing during exercise

No matter what form of exercise you choose, here are some dos and don’ts to ensure you are taking care of your hearing while working out.

  • Do: Get a hearing check immediately if you experience any change in hearing during or after exercise.
  • Do: Reduce the weight you're lifting to reduce strain. Reducing the strain will reduce the intracranial pressure, and possibly prevent a PLF from occurring.
  • Do: If you are noticing hearing problems during or after exercise, experiment to find the level of exercise at which you are no longer experiencing changes to your hearing.
  • Do: Protect your hearing in the gym. Wear earplugs to safeguard against loud music, or keep headphones at a reasonable volume to avoid long term damage in the form of noise-induced hearing loss.
  • Do: As you age, do less straining during exercise, especially in the form of heavy lifting.
  • Don’t: Hold your breath to get that extra boost of strength, as holding your breath increases the pressure within the ears.
  • Don’t: Strain during weight lifting.
  • Don’t: Participate in sports which can result in blows to the head, such as boxing or wrestling, if you are experiencing changes in your hearing.
  • Don’t: Bang the weights when weight lifting. That sudden noise can reach a level as high as 140 decibels, which is like being exposed to a gunshot or explosion.
  • Don’t: Ignore symptoms, thinking they will just go away.

When to seek help

What should you look for? Symptoms such as fullness in the ears, muffled hearing or dizziness after intense exercise are definitely not normal, and should be checked out by a medical professional. So go ahead and make 2016 the year for a healthy body; just make sure to keep your hearing healthy at the same time.

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