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Study shows earplugs worn at concerts make a difference

Contributed by | Thursday, May 12th, 2016

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Summer is right around the corner, and many of us will take advantage of the warm weather to see our favorite bands at outdoor concerts and music festivals. Spending the day at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza or Governors Ball might sound ideal, but there is a downside; with sound levels upwards of 100 decibels (dB), there is a real risk of hearing damage.

Close-up on jar of foam earplugs
Used correctly, these little
earplugs can help you enjoy
your favorite band without
damaging your hearing.

According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults worldwide are now at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to unsafe noise levels. Loud entertainment venues such as nightclubs and concerts are a big part of the problem, and now a new study out of the Netherlands confirms it — just a few hours of exposure to loud music without hearing protection can have a detrimental effect on hearing.

The study was devised as a randomized, single blind clinical trial, to be conducted only once at an outdoor music festival in Amsterdam on September 5, 2015. The goal was to determine if the use of earplugs, or the lack thereof, had an effect on temporary threshold shift (TTS). First, the study organizers put out a call for volunteers through social media. Out of 91 respondents who planned to attend the concert, 40 were excluded because they were already planning to wear earplugs to the concert. The remaining 51 were randomly assigned to one of two groups: 25 were assigned to wear earplugs to the concert and 26 were assigned to attend the concert without any hearing protection. After the 4 ½ hour concert, at which sound pressure levels averaged 100 dB, both groups received hearing tests to determine if there was a measurable TTS, and if so to what degree.

To understand TTS, it is first necessary to understand auditory threshold. Auditory threshold is the sound level below which a person's ear is unable to detect any sound. TTS is an increase in the auditory threshold, and manifests itself in a temporary hearing loss during which sounds are unclear or muffled.

The results of the study spoke volumes. Of the group that did not wear ear protection during the concert, researchers found that 22 out of their collective 52 ears experienced a TTS at frequencies over 3 and 4 kHz, as opposed to only 4 out of the collective 50 ears of the group who wore hearing protection. And the rate of tinnitus was 40 percent in the non-earplug wearing group, as opposed to only 12 percent in the group who wore earplugs.

According to the research team, led by Dr. Wilko Grolman of the University Medical Center Utrecht, results of the study are evidence that earplugs are effective in preventing temporary hearing loss as a result of excessively loud music levels, and their use should be encouraged. Just encouraging teens and young adults to wear earplugs might not be quite enough, however, to cause the sweeping change that is necessary. But could some high profile intervention turn the tide?

Let’s hope so. Concertgoers seeing one of the most popular bands on tour this summer, Pearl Jam, will notice a new addition among the t-shirts and other merchandise: earplugs. After taking notice of the prevalence of hearing loss among musicians and music lovers, Pearl Jam joined forces with MusiCares to provide earplugs to all attendees of their upcoming concerts for a minimal suggested donation.

“Don’t be careless and lazy at loud rock shows or cranking tunes through an old Walkman like I was thirty years ago (but boy did it all sound good). Wear hearing protection or you’ll end up with a 1.5k [Hz] ring in both ears every night when you go to bed, or worse when you are trying to enjoy the serene quiet of an empty desert or forest, again like me,” said Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament.

If you have attended a loud concert and sounds are muffled or you are experiencing ringing or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus), the good news is that it is most likely only temporary. But temporary doesn’t necessarily mean there is no long-term effect. It is important to allow your ears a period of quiet rest and recovery if you are experiencing TTS. During this period of time it is crucial not to expose yourself to any loud sounds. After such a period of rest and recovery, hearing should return to normal. The recovery time for a temporary threshold shift varies, and could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Be sure to seek help from a hearing care professional if your hearing does not return to normal after a few days.

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