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How to avoid tinnitus and hearing loss, according to a senior research Professor

Hearing loss. In the music industry the term inspires one of two responses – you’ve either never lifted an eyebrow to it, or you’re so damn terrified of the problem (looking at you, tinnitus) you won’t leave the house without your trusty ear plugs.

To zip straight past the rumours and get to the bottom of how prevalent hearing loss it, why it’s barely recognised, and what you can do to prevent it, we found ourselves an expert.

hearing loss happy mag Professor David Ryugo tinnitus
Photo: Brooke Tunbridge

How much should you worry about hearing loss or tinnitus? We speak to Professor David Ryugo about one of music’s most prevalent – yet most unacknowledged – problems.

Why is hearing loss ignored?

Most every professional musician or music fan will have had the hearing loss conversation at some point in their lives – or at least told their best mates how badly their ears are ringing after a gig. The problem is quite literally screaming to be heard, so why are there so few who actually do anything to prevent ear damage?

According to Professor David Ryugo of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the answer isn’t so simple.

“First, historically people who couldn’t hear were considered ‘dumb’ – recall the ‘deaf and dumb’ label. Second, I think people, especially men, see hearing loss as a sign of age and weakness – thus, significant denial.”

“Third, the brain is so good at guessing what people are saying that many don’t recognise that they are missing a good amount of information. Lastly, many people with hearing loss withdraw socially so they don’t have to deal with the problem.”

Is it just musicians at risk?

As a sometimes performer and very regular attendee of live music (plus, my job requires a lot of listening), I was interested to find out how my ears had held up after years of admittedly irresponsible listening. After my first ever hearing test it turned out I was pretty lucky; my left ear had lost a small chunk of its high-frequency hearing but everything else was above board.

A colleague of mine was less lucky. Years playing drums in punk bands had earned them moderate levels of hearing loss in their right ear across all frequencies – the result of sitting two feet away from a set of cymbals without ear plugs for too long.

Though we’re particularly at risk in music, hearing loss is hardly limited to our profession. If anything, the ears of the audience are being hammered the hardest.

“Interestingly, many of my colleagues who study the brain and hearing have also studied music and are musicians”, Professor Ryugo shared.

“Professional musicians tend to have particularly good hearing – partly due to genetics and partly due to practice – they can make exquisite distinctions between various sounds. But professional musicians must also protect their hearing.” 

“Most rock and roll musicians wear ear plugs during performances while blasting the ears of their fans. Ultimately the hearing of individuals will depend on how well they protect their ears from industrial noise – motorcycles, loud music, power tools, air dryers, and so forth. Regardless of one’s profession, if he or she doesn’t protect their hearing, they will suffer hearing loss.”

Moreover, the ubiquitous use of personal listening devices such as AirPods isn’t helping the cause.

“Because we have personal listening devices, people don’t know if one of their companions is harming their ears because the noise level is private and personal. There is no social constraint on listening to your music loudly because you’re not bothering anyone else. The World Health Organisation recently estimated that 1.1 billion people worldwide between the ages of 12-35 are at risk for hearing loss because of noise exposure caused by personal listening devices and a disregard for noise protection. “

“We are not necessarily at a greater risk because we have the knowledge to avoid ear damage by noise. The question is whether young people will take the precautions of avoiding ear damage by loud noise.”

hearing loss happy mag peter bibby
Photo: Dani Hansen

What happens when you don’t protect your ears?

So how do you motivate 1.1 billion people to start looking after their ears? One tried and tested strategy is scaring the shit out of them… which I wouldn’t normally advocate, but Professor Ryugo was happy to facilitate:

“What we know is that hearing loss impairs academic achievement, limits employment opportunities, lowers self-esteem, causes social isolation, and raises the risk for dementia fivefold. The financial and personal cost of hearing loss to society and the individual is enormous.”

As it stands there is no cure for tinnitus, a hearing loss condition marked by constant ringing in one’s ears. Despite advocacy from high profile musicians such as Neil Young, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, or The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson over the years, not to mention wide-scale chatter of the condition amongst sound techs, tinnitus still seems to be pushed into the ‘that’ll never happen to me’ pile.

Moreover, tinnitus still has no cure – they’ve even tried MDMA. The search for remedies to tinnitus, generalised hearing loss, and hyperacusis, a painful “super-sensitivity to loudness changes” is what occupies Professor Ryugo’s time at the Garvan Institute. But there’s a long way to go.

“New advances in cellular and molecular biology are looking at regenerating those components of the ear that are damaged by noise or genetics. Genetic manipulation is also exploring how to repair damaged ears. These latest treatment strategies, while promising, are unfortunately still years away from being applied to humans.”

How do we avoid hearing loss and tinnitus?

In short you want to prevent hearing loss before it happens, because it’s largely irreversible. If you work in music professionally this could even mean the end of your livelihood – like a chef losing their tastebuds or a surgeon losing their hands.

Taking care of your ears is a long game and the sooner you start, the better.

“Loud sound is like radiation or ultraviolet light: a little exposure won’t hurt but a lot will and the energy is additive. Over time, the collective sum of noise exposure will eventually damage the ears and cause hearing loss. “

“There are plenty of apps for your smartphone that measure loudness. One should avoid situations where the ambient noise exceeds 90dB. I personally leave places where the ambient noise level approaches 85dB. I always take ear plugs when I attend concerts and I always use my phone to measure ambient noise levels.”

And if you play music, work at a venue, or see a lot of bands live, just get some damn ear plugs. They’re the condoms of hearing loss; they’re cheap and effective, you’ll (barely) notice you’re wearing them, and chances are you’ll dodge a bullet by using them.

“One can get acceptable ear protection from a $20 pair of ear plugs – the attenuation of the music will be pretty flat – that is, they won’t distort the sound. The inexpensive foam ear plugs work, but not so well for music because they tend to block high frequencies and distort the sound.”

Do what the Professor says, kids.