BY JIMMY SAILORS THE DOTHAN EAGLE
Part of Jim Jordan’s job with the Houston County Road and Bridge Department used to include inspecting bridges under construction.
The machines that hammer piles for bridge foundations can produce noise levels ranging from 90 to 100 decibels at 50 feet away.
“We had ear plugs,” he said. “I just didn’t wear them.”
Loud sounds from equipment and other sources contributed to Jordan’s hearing loss. At 48, he is younger than most people suffering damage, but his diagnosis isn’t unusual.
Millions don’t seek medical help for the early signs of hearing loss, such as muffled or distorted hearing, difficulty understanding speech, or pain or ringing in the ears.
“The average person has hearing loss for seven years before they actually seek help,” audiologist Gracie Herndon of Physicians Hearing Center in Dothan said.
Jordan said he probably denied the problem about four or five years, but since he sought help his hearing and his life have improved.
New technology can deliver a clearer signal that helps a patient concentrate on the sounds he or she wants to hear. At the same time, state-of-the-art headsets and ear buds can deliver potentially deafening sound levels.
Ear doctors are growing more concerned about how loud teens are playing music on their smartphones and iPods.
Herndon said some devices allow a listener to increase the bass to a point where it can cause permanent damage. “If you can feel that sound on you, you can imagine what it’s doing to your eardrum,” she said.
According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hearing loss can result from damage to structures or nerve fibers in the inner ear. Noise-induced hearing loss is usually caused by exposure to excessively loud sounds and cannot be medically or surgically corrected.
Sound intensity is measured in decibels. Hearing loss caused by noise can result from a one-time exposure at or above 120 decibels or by listening to sounds at or above 85 decibels over an extended period. The louder the sound, the shorter the time period before hearing damage occurs.
Herndon said ears pick up sound vibrations, but the brain is what hears.
“The ears take the signal in, but they feed it to the brain, and the brain is what puts everything together,” she said. “So when you do have hearing loss and you don’t have it treated, you’re getting a distorted signal, so that’s what makes it so hard to hear and understand.”
Some low-cost devices only amplify. Modern hearing devices don’t just make things louder. They deliver a clean, clear signal that’s more like what the brain is designed to process.
Herndon said they can help patients focus on the speech and not hear the noise.
Jordan has devices programmed based on his hearing tests. They can be fine tuned and customized to deliver the best quality sound.
When hearing aids are linked to a device worn around the neck called a streamer, audio sources like a television or telephone can be transmitted using a wireless Bluetooth connection.
Modern devices look more like headsets and MP3 players than hearing aids. They pick up delicate sounds like keys rattling, birds, crickets and a door handle turning. And when a very loud sound is detected, the devices don’t pass it on.
Herndon said if hearing loss goes untreated a person can use 10 times as much effort to interpret sounds. Determining whether someone said “hat” or “cat” can be a chore. She described it like reading text on a page but leaving out some of the words.
She recommends patients wear the hearing devices all the time, to help them preserve their hearing and understand the sounds they hear.
Since he got help, Jordan has seen a vast difference.
“It has helped,” he said. “It really has.”
The CDC wants young people to not exceed recommended exposure limits for potentially hazardous sound levels.
It lists sound intensity for school environments plus recommended exposure limits: a school cafeteria can be 85 decibels for eight hours, band class 90 decibels for two hours, and wood or metal shop 100 decibels for 15 minutes.
Hazardous sound levels include personal stereo system at high volume (105 decibels for five minutes), chainsaw or loud rock concert (110 decibels for 1.5 minutes), ambulance siren (120 decibels for nine seconds) and firecrackers and firearms (140 to 165 decibels, immediate hearing damage possible).
Jordan used to listen to loud music, and when he hunts and shoots he hasn’t always used ear protection.
“I should have,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in now.”
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