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Study shows risk of hearing loss for hunters

Contributed by | Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
Waterfall rushing in the woods
If you don't use hearing protection 
while hunting, you may lose the 
ability to hear other great sounds in

The image of hunters sitting silently in a duck blind being very careful to avoid excess noise, while accurate to a point, doesn't tell the whole story. The flip side of those long periods of silence is periodic, yet dangerous, noise from gunshots which can cause long term hearing damage. 

A study done at the University of Wisconsin reveals just how pervasive the problem of hearing loss is among hunters as well as the reasons behind it. The study indicated that men between the ages of 48 and 92 who hunted on a regular basis were much more likely to experience high-frequency hearing loss, and that the risk of hearing loss increased by 7 percent for every 5 years a man had been hunting. Most telling? Out of 3753 participants in the study, 38 percent of target shooters and 95 percent of hunters said they had not worn hearing protection at all in the previous year.

A gunshot ranges from 140 decibels to 190 decibels, which is enough to cause immediate damage. And it is not just gunshots; the whistles and quacks from loud game calls can also cause hearing damage.

Hunters who don’t use hearing protection say it is because they feel like earmuffs or earplugs interfere with the noise they actually want to hear, such as the rustling of a deer or the flapping of ducks wings. In other words, they don’t wear hearing protection because they are afraid of missing something important.

But perhaps it is important to look at exactly how hunting leads to hearing loss, as well as some science behind it. Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is actually one of the most common forms of hearing loss. It occurs when the sensitive hair cells responsible for transmitting sound waves to the brain are damaged due to loud noise. The bad news is that when damage occurs the cells eventually die and do not regenerate. The damage may be evident right away, and manifest itself in the form of muffled hearing or ringing in the ears (also called tinnitus) but more likely the damage builds up over time, in a slow but irreversible progression.

A number of factors play into hunting-related NIHL. Hunters in particular might notice, for example, that their hearing loss is asymmetrical, i.e. worse in one ear than in the other. That is due to a phenomenon called acoustic shadow. A right-handed shooter will shoulder the gun on the right, tucking the right ear into the shoulder and having the left ear closer to the gun barrel. This means right-handed shooters have a more severe hearing loss in the left ear because the right ear is in the “acoustic shadow” of the head.

Other factors that affect the amount of hearing loss for hunters include barrel length, bullet speed, cartridge intensity and the presence (or lack of) a muzzle brake. A muzzle brake, a piece of equipment attached to the barrel of the gun, is designed to redirect the propellant gasses in order to counter recoil and muzzle rise. Unfortunately the redirection means the noise from those propellant gasses is now forced sideways or backwards toward the shooter, which adds as much as an ear-splitting 11 decibels to the sound of a gunshot.

Equipment notwithstanding, hearing protection while hunting is an absolute necessity. Fortunately, there are a number of options available.

There are two main types of hearing protection available, and which one you choose is a matter of preference. The first is passive noise protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs. These work by muffling noise and reducing the decibel level that is able to reach the inner ears. For noise that exceeds 105 dB, such as gunshots, wearing earmuffs and earplugs together is the best bet. Both earmuffs and earplugs come with a noise reduction rating, or NRR; obviously higher is better. Some hunters, however, dislike the fact that passive hearing protection muffles not only the gunshots, but also sounds they want to hear, such as conversation with fellow hunters or the sounds of approaching animals.

The alternative is active hearing protection, also known as electronic hearing protection, which allows hunters the best of both worlds. Through a process called destructive interference, which is basically countering an incoming sound wave with an inverse sound wave produced by the headphones, the harmful noise is subdued. These high tech earmuffs come in a range of price points have the advantage of enhancing environmental sounds while at the same time decreasing the dangerous, high decibel sounds. The Walker Game Ear, for example, blocks any noise above 85 decibels but enhances regular sounds. And built in microphones in these devices even allow a hunter to pinpoint which direction a sound is coming from.

There is no question that part of the pleasure of hunting is spending time outdoors and hearing the various sounds of nature. The good news is that if you protect your hearing now, you’ll be able to enjoy those sounds of nature for years to come.

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