Could your exercise program be causing hearing loss?
Maybe you resolved to make this year your year to get fit. Spring break is looming, and perhaps 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 routine might come with an unpleasant side effect: hearing loss.
Fitness programs designed to push the body to its limit, such as CrossFit which has gained a cult following across the nation, can have negative consequences for your hearing if you are not careful. CrossFit and other intense "boot camp" style programs combine weightlifting, cardio, core training and more can deliver results in the form of peak physical fitness. But some participants are paying a high price for getting in shape.
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 weightlifting. 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 profess gives them an extra boost while 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 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.
Don't pump up the volume
Gyms are noisy places. To get athletes motivated for such intense workouts, gyms often crank up the tunes to an ear-splitting level, sometimes well over 90-100 decibels (dB). Fitness enthusiasts who strain themselves to the absolute limits need to be mindful of the risks to their hearing. When you combine loud music with noise coming from stationary bikes, elliptical trainers and treadmills and the crashing of heavy weights, you have the perfect recipe for 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 airbag 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.”
If you leave your Zumba class or gym workout with ringing ears and muffled hearing, those are good signs your workout to improve your health is harming your hearing health in the process. Although most trainers and gyms have little appetite for turning down the music, it doesn't hurt to ask. Sometimes, just a polite request can spark awareness that will benefit everyone in the gym. If that fails, bring along a set of earplugs. You'll still be able to hear your favorite tunes and the instructions of the trainer but at a safer volume.
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 could possibly prevent a PLF from occurring.
- Do protect your hearing in the gym. Wear earplugs to safeguard against loud music or keep headphones at a reasonable volume to avoid noise-induced hearing loss.
- 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 or drop the weights when 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 of hearing loss.
When to seek help
Don't shy away from efforts to get fit and healthy, just be aware of the dangers to your hearing health at the same time. If you experience feelings of fullness in the ears, muffled hearing, tinnitus or dizziness after intense exercise, get help right away. Check out our directory of hearing healthcare professionals who can assess the damage and recommend next steps to take.
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