The effects of noise on musicians

Band members, due to the nature of their work, are more likely to be exposed to significant levels of noise when performing on stage. The levels of noise at a concert can reach as high as 100dB or more and, at this level of exposure, a person should not be exposed for longer than 15 minutes before damage can be caused.

Sometimes a person can experience noise in their ears after they have been exposed to impulse or continuous loud noise which causes a temporary loss of hearing after the exposure which eventually disappears (threshold shift). This noise that they experience is known as tinnitus which is a ringing or buzzing in the ear. Although this can disappear, the damage to hearing, if exposure to noise continues, will remain as long term damage. Therefore, for band members at concerts, this continuous exposure to noise on a weekly basis will increase the amount of damage caused to the inner ear, which would be the same for people being exposed to other noise sources such as heavy machinery and tools through work.

In a recent article, a former band member published his experiences of tinnitus and the effects that exposure to noise has had on his life. The first time he noticed noise in his ears was after a gig in 1981 when he was 25. He said at that time many musicians never wore ear plugs to protect their ears whilst playing and said that many would say that it must have been a great gig as my ears are still ringing. The cause of this ringing at the time, to many people, was unknown and as a result of this damage was being caused without being aware of the effects to the inner ear cells. The level of noise damage caused and the tinnitus which he subsequently developed meant that he had to wear tinnitus masking hearing aids, as over the years his symptoms became significantly worse.

Tinnitus is an on going problem for those who have worked in the music business, in industry and the Armed Forces. Last month, the World Health Organisation warned of the dangers of noise exposure and advised for safety reasons that a person should not listen to music for more than one hour a day. According to the British Tinnitus Association it has been found that 1 in 10 adults in the UK suffer with tinnitus to some degree.

A new treatment called neuromodulation for tinnitus sufferers is currently being tested which they hope will be able to target the cause rather than the symptoms associated with tinnitus. The electronic device being tested hopes to change the frequency of the tone in the inner ear to a more tolerable sound when a person hears it.

Noise exposure not only causes tinnitus but it alters a person’s ability to hear certain sound frequencies. Many people who have noise induced hearing loss find it very difficult to communicate in crowded places when there is a huge amount of background noise and so it is not noticeable until a situation like this arises which triggers the awareness of hearing loss. As was the case for the band member, he experienced tinnitus symptoms some 20 – 30 years before the true damage that the noise had caused was found and, therefore, the continuing exposure to noise could not be prevented because he was not aware of the damage being caused.

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