Don't let March Madness lead to hearing loss
It happens every year at this time. Sports enthusiasts across the country become united in a common cause. That cause? March Madness, also known as the NCAA Division I Basketball Championship. All eyes are on the top 68 teams vying for that gold trophy. Brackets are thoughtfully filled out, office pools are formed and everyone is hoping that their team will be the one that captures the title. And for some lucky people, the opportunity to see a live game is one they just can’t pass up. Yes, seeing an NCAA tournament game is exciting, but that excitement can come with a hidden danger: hearing loss.
Excitement equals high levels of noise
The noise level in basketball arenas, especially at tournament time, can be teeth-rattling. And for the fans, sometimes referred to as the Sixth Man, having the distinction of being the loudest in the country is a badge of honor. The loudest fans and arena can earn bragging rights for years to come. Encouraging fans to be as raucous as possible, arenas such as Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio and the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York encourage fans to ramp up the volume by displaying messages such as “Make some noise!” and “Get Loud!” on the Jumbotron, which makes for an exciting atmosphere and pumps up the crowd to a frenzy.
And of course, bigger arenas mean bigger sound; adding to the noise level are enormous high quality speaker systems. Make no mistake, at the large venues such as Key Arena in Seattle, the sound systems are often the star of the show. Some large arenas feature as many as 60 speakers aimed directly at the spectators for maximum amplification. Between the pep band, the buzzers, the announcers, the loud music and thousands of screaming fans including an enthusiastic student section, it all adds up to a potentially dangerous noise level.
Designed for noise
It turns out that the noise level of basketball arenas isn’t by accident, it’s by design. Basketball arenas acoustics are a direct result of the way the buildings are designed, with curved roofs and overhangs that reflect sound directly back down into the arena. The structure of the building and materials used are chosen for maximum amplification and reverberation. In a post on the Keeping Score blog, the science of sound at sporting events was discussed and explained. “The main thing that creates noise is any type of overhanging structure that reflects sounds back into the stadium,” says Andrew Barnard, a research associate at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory.
How loud is too loud?
Keep in mind that the decibel level at a typical NCAA tournament basketball game is 115 decibels (dB), the same as a chainsaw at close range. "We can stand that noise without permanent damage to our hearing for approximately seven and half minutes," explains Ray Hull, audiologist at Wichita State University, in an interview with the Wichita State University Newsline. "Those who are most susceptible to damage to their hearing are those who are sitting, for example, near the pep band or, of course for those in the pep band, because intensity levels can reach 125 to 130 dB. At that intensity level, you are susceptible to permanent damage to your hearing after about a minute and a half of exposure." And the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) states that exposure to 110 dB or above can cause permanent hearing loss after only one minute of exposure. Since the typical NCAA tournament game runs well over two hours, that is a serious problem when it comes to your hearing.
Despite the excitement of being at the Big Dance, exposure to the cacophony generated by such a keyed-up crowd can have long-lasting repercussions. Partial hearing loss and tinnitus are a real risk. Such high noise levels cause damage to the tiny hair cells that are responsible for transmitting sound to the brain, and those cells eventually die. The bad news is that the damage to the hair cells is permanent; the good news is that it is preventable with proper ear protection.
Preserving your good hearing
Hearing protection for loud sporting events is crucial, especially for children, and the solution is simple. Fortunately, a simple pair of foam or polyurethane earplugs can easily be obtained from a pharmacy or drugstore for just a few dollars and are effective at blocking your ears from harmful noise. Each type comes with a specific Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), so you can easily find a pair that suits your needs. Ask your hearing healthcare professional for advice about which kind are the best for noise reduction and hearing protection.
What if you’ve already been exposed and you are experiencing hearing loss or tinnitus after the big game? While a portion of your hearing threshold shift could be temporary, it doesn’t mean there isn’t also some permanent damage. If you are experiencing noise-induced hearing loss, seek help from a hearing healthcare professional to have a hearing test and talk about possible treatment options.
If you are lucky and can cheer for your favorite Division I team in person this spring, don’t forget to cheer loudly. And remember: getting to the Final Four is hard, protecting your hearing is easy.