Shooting without Hearing Protection: A Closer Look
ISOtunes Sport Team / May 4, 2021
What actually happens when we shoot firearms without hearing protection? More specifically, what happens to our ears and our hearing? For some of us there’s ringing; for others sounds get muffled or clogged; and some may temporarily lose almost all hearing. What is actually going on inside our ears that causes these reactions? Let’s take a closer look.
At this point we know a few things about how our ears process sound and help us hear. For those of you like us, that maybe weren’t paying close enough attention in your high school biology class, here’s a quick summary. The inner part of the ear is lined with hair-like cells containing nerve endings. These nerve endings convert sound into electrical signals that are carried to the brain. Then these signals are interpreted as the various noises and sounds we hear. These fine, little hairs are quite easily damaged by the sudden burst of loud noise or prolonged exposure to consistently high volumes of sound.
THAT'S ALL GREAT, BUT WHY ARE MY EARS RINGING AND HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO GET MY HEARING BACK?
These hairs are very sensitive and fragile, and they actually begin to bend when exposed to louder sounds. The twisting and warping of these cells causes a number of undesired outcomes as it relates to our hearing. The good news is, if the exposure is minimal, they should return to their normal shape in a few hours, bringing normal hearing back as well. Prolonged exposure or sound levels very close to the ear, like that of a shooter's ear, can cause more significant damage and require a few days for hearing to return to normal.
As you can likely imagine, enough exposure to higher volumes will result in long-term damage that is irreversible. Too much exposure to loud noises can cause these hair-like cells to become permanently misshapen and the damage can lead to Tinnitus. Tinnitus is the medical condition where we perceive sounds or noises without an actual source for those sounds, and people often describe this as a ringing sound. This hearing loss or ringing can last for years at a time, or even a person’s entire lifetime and often requires the use of hearing aids and other assistive devices.
Our reaction to loud noise is largely dependent on the sound levels, but we also can’t rule out genetics and family history. Hearing protection should always be worn when shooting firearms, but especially if your family has a history of hearing loss. If you’ve been shooting lately, or anywhere that loud noises are present, and your hearing is muffled or the ringing continues for more than 24 hours, it might be time to consult with your doctor or a trained audiologist.
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