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LISTEN UP! – Hearing Loss and Firearms

Hearing Loss and FirearmsSkeet shooting. Target practice. Wild game hunting. These are popular leisure-time activities in our part of the country. An estimated 70 million Americans own firearms used for fun and recreational opportunities. However, acoustic trauma from unprotected exposure to gunfire is not fun, and can be prevented. With hunting season upon us, it is important to be aware of the effects of noise from firearms and the best use of hearing protection.

Guns are Loud!
Normal conversational speech is at a level of approximately 60-65 decibels (dB). The threshold of pain is considered to be at 140dB. The average peak sound pressure level produced by firearms is over 150dB. That is at the very least 14dB beyond the threshold of pain, and more than sufficient to cause acoustic trauma and permanent hearing loss. What is most important to understand is that it does not take repetitive fire to cause permanent hearing loss. Even a single gunshot blast is enough to cause irreversible damage to your hearing. According to Dr. William Clark, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, the damage caused by one shot from a .357 magnum pistol, which can expose a shooter to 165 dB for 2msec, is equivalent to over 40 hours in a noisy workplace.

Noise-induced Hearing Loss
The left ear (in right-handed shooters) often suffers more damage than the right ear because it is closer to, and directly in line with, the muzzle of the firearm. Also, the right ear is partially protected by the head.  This type of noise-induced hearing loss can be difficult to remediate with amplification from hearing aids because of the trauma to the higher frequency region of the ear, which is so important for understanding speech clearly. The affected person typically accuses others of mumbling or not speaking loud enough. Or they may report that people are speaking loud enough but they still cannot understand what is being said to them. In addition, this type of hearing loss is often accompanied by tinnitus (or ringing) in the ears.

Hearing Protection
Many hunters and firearm users are unaware of commercially available hearing protection specifically designed for use in the shooting sports. Over-the-counter hearing protection with insert earplugs are often made of a soft foam or rubber material. When inserted and fitting properly, insert earplugs provide excellent hearing protection. The same goes for earmuffs that can be purchased to fit over the ears. Double protecting with inserts and muffs provides the greatest amount of protection for the shooter at little cost.

Custom earplugs are made from an impression of the ear by an audiologist. Because they are molded to fit the ear, they are easily inserted, comfortable, and provide consistent and appropriate attenuation with each use. Custom earplugs are available with a wide variety of materials and colors choices. Custom earplugs are relatively inexpensive, with the price depending on the features recommended and chosen.

Electronic devices provide mild amplification in certain frequencies to allow the shooter to hear soft and moderate-level sounds, like speech or an animal in the woods, but employ electronic peak clipping and filters to protect the shooter’s hearing when the gun is fired. Styles include headsets or muffs, custom-made in-the-ear devices or behind-the-ear devices (preferably with custom molds). Electronic hearing protection is the most expensive, but by far the favorite of avid hunters.

Tips for Shooters to Reduce Hearing Loss Risks
• Obtain custom hearing protection or at least keep disposable hearing protection on hand.
• Double-protect whenever possible – with earplugs and earmuffs.
• Use nonlinear or electronic noise – canceling ear protection for hunting.
• Choose firearms with longer barrels (farther from the ear).
• Consider using low-recoil (low-noise) ammunition.
• Avoid shooting in groups, especially at indoor or enclosed firing ranges.
• When hunting in a blind, make sure the muzzle is outside the blind before pulling the trigger.

As Audiologists, we want to reduce our patient’s risk of hearing loss from firearm use by counseling them about the hazards of firearm noise and recommending appropriate hearing protection for specific shooting activities.

For more information about hearing protection or to schedule an appointment for a Free Hearing Screening, contact The Jackson Hearing Center at 731-660-5511 or visit us online at www.hearingmemphis.com.

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