Loud noise, too much noise, will cause a loss of hearing. Once hearing is lost, it is gone forever. There is no magical cure to restore lost hearing. Fortunately, there is a solution if a person is aware of possible dangers to hearing loss. The key to maintaining good hearing is prevention - protection from exposure to excessive decibels before damage occurs.
While participation in the shooting sports continues to surge nationwide, so too does the awareness of the importance of hearing protection. Firearms, especially those without noise suppressers, can instantly produce decibel levels in excess of 140 decibels. Hearing loss can be expected to occur at 85 decibels or less. Sometimes hearing loss is instantaneous. Anyone exposing themselves to loud sounds such as gunshots, or prolonged sounds at lesser decibel levels, is at risk of damaging their hearing.
Hearing protection is required at the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club indoor and outdoor ranges, and at the Minot Gun Club, where shotgunners shoot thousands of rounds annually at clay targets. The importance of hearing protection is also a point of emphasis at Hunter Education classes taught to thousands of youth throughout the state each year. It is a vitally important message taught by teams of volunteer instructors.
Earmuffs are a common form of hearing protection for shooting sports enthusiasts. Some shooters will also wear foam earplugs beneath the muffs for extra protection against hearing loss.
"If you'd like to hear later, it's nice to use hearing protection now," advised Tom Kelsh, Minot, hunter education instructor.
"Get young kids started right away. It's no different than the seat belt law," said Eric Lehner, range officer at the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club. "I grew up without wearing seat belts and my kids are always on me about putting my seat belt on. I always have ear protection on and my kids have always had ear protection."
A command often heard at shooting ranges is "eyes and ears," which means it is time for shooters to don protective eyewear and all-important hearing protection. No shooting is allowed to commence until all shooters comply with proper eye and ear protection.
Decibel danger exposure times
140 dB+Firearm, jet plane instant permanent damage
130 dB Jackhammer, heavy machinery less than one second
120 dB Rock concertless than 10 seconds
110 dB Snowmobile, power tools1 1/2 minutes
90 dB Lawnmower2 1/2 hours
85 dB Beginning of danger zone8 hours
Dr. Jerrica Maxson, an audiologist with Trinity Medical Group, sees first hand the effects of damage to hearing. She says significant hearing loss in not uncommon among 20- to 30-year-olds, many of whom typically don't know how much hearing they've lost until undergoing an evaluation. The amount of hearing loss can be dramatic.
"I think people don't realize how quickly your ears can be affected by noise, even if you only shoot a couple of times a year," said Maxson. "It doesn't matter. All that noise exposure that you are exposed to adds up over time. You can never go back after you've had damage to your ears.
Loss of hearing of high frequency sounds is a telltale first sign of hearing loss. However, because most sounds are lower pitched, those who have suffered some hearing loss tend to naturally compensate. The brain fills in the blanks created by the initial loss of hearing. The person may not be fully aware of the extent of their hearing loss. More exposure to damaging decibels will likely cause hearing ability to deteriorate further.
The best solution to hearing loss remains prevention - the wearing of one or more of the many hearing protection devices available today. Hearing protection ranges from simple foam earplugs to muffs to custom-fit protection. All offer some range of protection from loud noises, but they must be used to be effective.
"I would say the best protection is the protection you'll wear. Whatever you will put in, that's what I want you to add," said Maxson.
There are many sources of damaging sound today. Even an MP3 player can reach 105 decibels, loud enough to create hearing loss. Some companies make earbuds that limit exposure to 85 decibels. Motorcycles, lawnmowers, hair dryers, chainsaws and various power equipment can all produce sounds loud enough to damage hearing. Failure to be aware of the problem and take preventive action is very risky business.
"Once your hearing is gone, it's gone," said Rodney Hell, range officer for the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club and a long-time shooter. "Hearing protection is a plus. You've got to demand it on the shooting range, whether indoors or outdoors. It doesn't take much to ruin your ears."
Gunfire remains high on the list of sources of more decibels than the human ear is designed to withstand. While today's shooters are more aware than ever of the problems associated with muzzle blast, the consequences were often overlooked by the older generation, many of whom are dealing with hearing problems today.
"I've been running the range for a long time," said Lehner. "You are going to find some of the older guys who never grew up wearing ear protection, whether it was deer hunting or anything else."
Today most shooting sports participants take hearing protection very seriously. They never want to leave a shooting range or end a hunt with ringing in their ears. With available protection today, hearing damage can be avoided.
Maxson is a proponent of custom-fitted hearing protection. Protective plugs can be made within a few days and are designed to completely seal an individual's ear from excessive noise. A custom-fitted plug designed particularly for hunters and shooters allows for normal conversation and hearing but contains a filter that instantly closes when a damaging level of sound is detected. The plugs provide invaluable hearing protection.
"The beauty of those is that you can still hear everything else. I think that is what is so appealing to the hunter," explained Maxson. "When the gun goes off the filter shuts to protect you and then opens right back up. There's no battery, nothing that needs power. It is an earplug specifically made for hunting."
Maxson says the price of custom-fitted hearing protection is far less expensive than hearing aids, which will likely be needed if hearing loss occurs. Even then, normal hearing won't return.
"That's the important thing," reminded Maxson. "You'll never get that normal hearing back."
Custom-fitted hearing protection has proven to be more than adequate for indoor and outdoor shooting applications. Some shooters prefer over-the-ear protection, particularly outdoors when a full earmuff provides protection from cold and windy weather. Like custom-fitted hearing protection, muffs can also provide amplification that gives hunters an increased awareness of their surroundings.
"What I typically recommend, if somebody needs amplification plus protection when they are hunting, is to get those game ears," said Maxson. "Some people don't like them because they are bulky. In that case a plug would be a better choice."
Sometimes, due to their size and configuration, muffs can interfere with the proper mount of a rifle or shotgun. For those shooters, custom-fitted plugs are a very good alternative. They are comfortable, easy to wear and offer important protection from hearing loss.