We rarely give a second thought to how we would manage if we couldn't hear chat lines, app alerts, demands to fuck harder. There are sounds which relax us, stress us out or warn us of potential danger. Then there are everyday sounds we sometimes know but don't know are there: a tune on a radio, bird song, an approaching train, the chatter of friends in the next room.
It is often difficult to appreciate the role it plays in our lives because it's so tightly woven into our daily existence and we (rarely) have a way of comparing what life would be like without it.
Our ears are designed to pick up sound and convert it into electrical signals which can be understood by the brain. The outer ear catches sound waves and channels them along a passage to the ear drum, causing it to vibrate. Wax is produced naturally and, along with the hairs which grow at the entrance of the ear, traps dirt and dust particles.
On the other side of the drum is the middle ear in which three tiny bones transmit the vibration across a small air filled cavity to the inner ear. The middle ear is connected to the back of the nose by the Eustachian tube which acts as a drainage passage and regulates air pressure. It opens during swallowing and yawning allowing air to flow up to the middle ear and equalising air pressure on both sides of the ear drum. Without this, the ear drum cannot vibrate properly which is why our hearing can become dull or muffled when we have a blocked nose or experience a change of air pressure when flying, for example.
The inner ear is made up of the cochlea, a small snail-shaped organ filled with fluid, through which sound waves vibrate. Minute hairs are stimulated by sound and converted into electrical impulses which are sent to the brain. Attached to the cochlea are three fluid-filled semi-circular canals at right angles to each other that help maintain balance by detecting even the slightest body movement.
The human ear is able to hear different ranges of sound from around 20Hz (hertz) to 30,000Hz. The top note on a piano, for example is around 4,000Hz. Comparative noise levels are measured in Decibels (Db) and the chart below shows a range of noises. Risk of injury starts at 90Db and probable permanent injury from 120Db.
Damage to hearing
Hearing may be damaged by exposure to very loud noises for a short period (such as an explosion at close range) or by prolonged exposure to low levels of noise (such as might occur in a machine room). The most likely risk to gay men is loud music in a club or through headphones and, frankly, it's pretty stupid when it can be avoided.
Muscles in the middle ear normally respond to loud noise by altering the stiffness of the bones that pass the vibrations to the inner ear. This reduces their efficiency and dampens the intensity of the noise. When a loud noise occurs without warning, these protective reflexes don’t have time to respond and the full force of the vibration is carried into the inner ear causing severe damage to delicate hairs in the cochlea.
Occasionally, loud noises actually rupture the ear drum. More commonly though, damage from loud noises occurs over a period of time, with a gradual destruction of the hairs causing permanent hearing loss. Sound at 90Db+ may cause pain and temporary deafness lasting for minutes or hours. This is a warning that hearing may be damaged.
Tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears) occurs after the noise has stopped and is an indication that some damage has probably been done. Prolonged exposure to loud noise leads to a loss of ability to hear certain high tones.
Later on, deafness extends to all high frequencies and just listening to somebody talking becomes increasingly difficult. Eventually, lower tones are also affected.
Protecting your hearing
- Whatever your age, see you doctor immediately should you experience any of the following symptoms: difficulty hearing someone talk, regular use of TV subtitles, persistent earache or pain, an unexplained loss of balance, dizziness, a ringing or noises in the ear.
- Ear protectors should be worn in noisy environments over 80Db - this includes clubs.
- Wear ear plugs when you’re clubbing and listening to loud music. You may like to ask a club the maximum level at which music is played (but they probably won’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about).
- Many smart phones and personal players have limits on the volume control. While these can often be over-ridden, the manufacturer will state that it is at your own risk.
- Ears are usually very good at cleaning themselves. If wax builds up you should see your doctor before you start poking around. If you’re used to using cotton buds, remember to be gentle! A punctured ear drum can cause permanent deafness.