What Causes Tinnitus (And Tips On Preventing It)?

  • Are you taking the proper precautions to prevent hearing loss?
  • Find out what exactly causes tinnitus, and what the science says.
  • Discover tips and best practices for preventing tinnitus.

Tinnitus: The Silent Killer

A skilled musician can perform well, regardless of their instrument’s quality. But the same isn’t the case when it comes to your hearing. If your hearing capabilities degrade progressively, you may find it harder and harder to listen to and perform music with precision.

Simply put, your ears are your most valuable asset as a musician which means that you should treat your ears with as much care as you would your own personal instrument. Protecting your hearing is critical, especially against the all-too-common threat of tinnitus.

While hearing protection is always a worthwhile means of mitigating this bothersome ailment associated with ringing in the ears, there’s even more that you can do to keep your hearing at peak acuity.

If you suspect that you are suffering from tinnitus or are simply concerned about the potential for acquiring the ailment, read on to learn about best methods for recognizing and mitigating the effects of tinnitus long-term.

What Is Tinnitus, And What Causes It?

In broad terms, the Mayo Clinic defines tinnitus as “the perception of noise or ringing in the ears.” This is an apt description as most sufferers – between 15% and 20% of the population, by some estimates – are at least partially aware of the persistent or intermittent ringing in their ears in an otherwise silent room. This so-called “phantom noise” can also take the form of a buzzing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or humming – all within the inner ear.

While most folks think of tinnitus as a condition all its own, it is, in fact, a symptom.

More specifically, tinnitus is often a symptom of some degree of hearing damage (both temporary and permeant). As such, musicians should always treat the presence of tinnitus as a serious threat to their ability to perform successfully in the long-term.

At first, you may experience the symptoms of tinnitus as a temporary occurrence, i.e. right after exiting a loud club or performance venue. This kind of intermittent tinnitus tends to fade within a few hours. But this ringing may also stick around, indicating that a more noteworthy hearing injury has occurred. To be specific, this longer-lasting tinnitus is often a sign that hair cells lining your inner ear have been harmed due to continuous exposure to loud music.

In particular, musicians and DJs are particularly prone to acquiring both types of tinnitus due to their routine exposure to direct music sources (either due proximity or as a performer). Tinnitus can be caused by prolonged exposure to consistent volume levels, with higher volumes causing damage more quickly than lower ones. As such, musicians, in particular, should remain constantly vigilant for this potentially harmful symptom.

However, there are other causes of tinnitus that non-musicians should take note of.

In particular, tinnitus can be caused by age-related hearing loss, earwax blockages, and changes in inner ear bone structures. In any case, you should speak with a doctor or hearing specialist if you suspect that you are suffering from tinnitus.

Facts & Studies About Tinnitus (What Science Says)

On the outside, tinnitus can appear scary, especially when it can be correlated with potential hearing damage if left untreated. While treatments for the various causes of tinnitus are still continuing to evolve, suffers should take into consideration some of the facts and studies surrounding the condition.

15 years ago, the BBC posted an article with the results of a survey stating “eight out of 10 young people who go to clubs and pop concerts regularly” were unconcerned about their auditory health.

Since that time, Action On Hearing Loss has reported that 10 million people in the UK are currently suffering from hearing loss, and they project that number to jump up to 14.5 million people by 2031.

Assuming that projection remains stable, roughly 1 in 5 UK residents will experience this bothersome ringing resulting from loud noise, with potential lasting hearing loss also standing as an ongoing threat to all sufferers.

Knowledge relating to general-purpose prevention of tinnitus are well-documented, especially among musicians and performance attendees. In particular, most folks know that wearing earplugs can help minimize the risk of inner ear harm caused by continuous high volume exposure. But many still forgo the use of earplugs for fear that it will lessen their enjoyment of the performance.

Action On Hearing Loss, however, posits that the inability to fully enjoy music as a result of earplugs is merely a “misconception”.

As it turns, out, many workers in the entertainment industry wear earplugs regularly despite their need for auditory acuity.

In fact, employers in the entertainment industry are required by law to provide ear protection to staff in situations where sound levels will be in excess of 85 decibels (dB).

For reference, many live music venues often range in volume level from 100 dB (the equivalent of standing by a blender while it’s making a smoothie) to 130 dB (the same volume you’d experience standing 100 meters from a jet during takeoff).

While this may not be inherently harmful to occasional concertgoers, musicians and entertainment employers who are regularly exposed to such volume levels risk hearing damage and the resulting tinnitus without proper protection.

If you’re a regular concertgoer or an employee in the performance industry, you will certainly need a pair of quality, purpose-built earplugs to prevent the acquisition of tinnitus-like symptoms. For a breakdown of what earplugs to buy, check out our article where, over a month, we tested and tried over 6 different earplugs for concerts.

Also, many folks are not convinced by the risks of tinnitus until they hear it from a current sufferer. To hear such testimonials, check out these stories told by musicians to the BBC.

How Loud Is Too Loud?

Noise levels beyond 85 dB are often described by some auditory health professionals as “loud” in general terms. But as it turns out, the damage caused by sound is not just a result of high volume levels. Instead, conditions that cause tinnitus are caused by “volume levels sustained over time, with higher volumes requiring significantly less time to cause damage,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Often, the conversation surrounding hearing damage and tinnitus starts when talking about noise levels in excess of 85 decibels.

But when taking the time factor into account, it would be misleading to simply say that anything around 85 dB is safe for an extended period of time.

In fact, your ears can only handle 85 dB for only about eight continuous hours before it becomes harmful.

At a concert or festival, however, noise levels often exceed 100 dB and even go up to 120 dB for well-amplified concerts in large venues. At volume levels that high, safe exposure ranges from around 10 seconds (120 dB) up to 15 minutes (100 dB). Many concerts and festivals go on for several hours, which is more than enough time to cause damage that results in tinnitus.

Under regular circumstances, your ears can handle 120 dB completely unprotected. In fact, many fireworks are experienced at around 150 dB when viewed from a safe distance. However, if that exposure lasts for even 30 seconds, you may have damaged your hearing in a lasting manner.

In so many words, the duration of exposure is just as important in preventing hearing damage as the volume level. When analyzing the Noise Reduction rating of a particular activity, know that for every 3 dB of noise reduction, you nearly double your safe exposure time.

To give a quick example, 95 dB will take about an hour to do damage. With earplugs that provide a 3 dB reduction, you’re now hearing this sound at 92 dB, and that’ll take about 2 hours to do damage (or in other words, approximately the length of most outdoor concerts).

Earplugs with a 6 dB reduction, on the other hand, would muffle the sound down to 89 dB, which you could handle safely for just about 4 hours. However, if the music gets turned up to 98 dB, and you don’t have anything to filter it, you suddenly only have half the safe exposure time at around 30 minutes.

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Prevention

Prevention of tinnitus can take on different forms depending on how often and at what levels you engaged with the most common cause of tinnitus, that being prolonged loud sounds. As such, the first step to prevention should be a diminution of how often you are exposed to potentially harmful, noisy environments.

For those of us working in the music industry, either as a performer, engineer or staff, you should make a plan to prevent tinnitus and its underlying hearing damage from taking hold.

Of course, the first and most obvious solution on this front is clear: earplugs, earplugs, earplugs. These shouldn’t be 99 cent foam earplugs, either.

In an attempt to find the best musician/concert earplugs in the world, we went out and bought 6 different pairs, all of which have received critical acclaim in some way, shape, or form. If you’re interested in our findings, you should take a look at our musician earplugs review.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, tinnitus is not a forgone conclusion that ultimately indicates that you will suffer from hearing damage. That being said, tinnitus should always be taken seriously as it may indicate the risk for the formation of hearing damage, especially as you are exposed to louder music over longer periods of time.

Prevention and mitigation are the best method for dealing with tinnitus, both after it arises and as a proactive measure. Consider investing in a quality pair of earplugs if you work in or are adjacent to the music industry, as doing so can help preserve your most precious instrument – your ears. As always, if you have questions about your hearing condition and how it may be harmed by your line of work, be sure to consult with a doctor or hearing specialist.