By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
What do rock bands and dance teachers have in common? No, this isn’t a joke. Sadly, the answer is hearing loss caused by listening to loud noises and music over long periods of time. Here are some facts and tips on how to protect yourself so that you can dance to the music for the rest of your career.
Symptoms of hearing loss may be as simple as the inability to hear others around a corner or when the speaker is facing away. These minor annoyances might seem like typical characteristics of aging, but they may actually be caused by other factors. The first question to ask is: how loud is too loud? It can be difficult to determine when sound actually starts to become harmful. We all love to feel the music in dance class. Yet even live piano music can damage our hearing.
To understand how something as wonderful as a steady diet of Chopin and Prokofiev could be bad for us, think about what the experts say about hearing loss.
Normal conversation occurs at about 60 decibels (dB), while a normal garbage disposal emits about 80 dB. The decibel level at a rock concert typically reaches 110 dB. According to the National Institutes of Health, brief exposure to noise at 120 dB can cause pain, and even one-time exposure to sounds from 120 to 150 dB—such as those coming from motorcycles, firecrackers, or small firearms—can result in noise-induced hearing loss. Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dB can cause hearing loss.
So while piano practice levels heard at close range occur at about 60 to 70 dB—not enough to cause damage—a piano played at fortissimo volume ranges from 84 to 103 dB. The volume that can be reached using recorded music is another matter altogether. We’ve all been in classes where the teacher, seemingly without noticing, plays her ballet CDs painfully loudly. And the music played in non-ballet classes is often played at significantly higher volume.
Long-term exposure to sound over 80 dB can lead to permanent hearing loss. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set a Noise Exposure Standard requiring that a noise conservation program be implemented if workers are exposed to sound levels of 85 dB over an eight-hour duration. Although teachers are rarely exposed to a full eight hours of loud music per day, are they subjecting themselves to more than they can handle? (Consider as well, that an estimated 5 percent of children under age 18 suffer some hearing loss. The younger generation needs help too.)
Owners should pay attention to classroom volume. It might pay to have a school policy on sound levels. Check in on classes periodically, and if the hip-hop teacher’s stuff is shaking the walls, ask her to lower the volume.
Placing classroom speakers high, rather than at ear level or on the floor, can also help. And make sure walls between back-to-back studios are properly sound-proofed; if the music bleeds through, teachers in those studios will have to engage in a battle to try to drown out the other music. While teaching, turn off sound to give corrections rather than shouting over the music.
Baffling (noise-muffling) materials also help control the level of noise in the environment and decrease the likelihood of hearing loss. Hanging acoustical baffles and banners can decrease echo as well as lower the general decibel level noticeably. Noise-reduction curtains made for industrial use are available, but even a regular set of thick window curtains or drapes can absorb sound.
We also need to address the hazards lurking in dance performance environments. While audiences might spend only a couple of hours in a loud theater, think of the time teachers, judges, and directors spend there. And without people sitting in the audience, you’ve lost another noise muffler—all those bodies absorb sound.
You can protect yourself by getting a decibel meter to check levels (available at RadioShack or other electronic stores). Keep track of sound levels during rehearsals, and have technicians keep the volume at a healthy level both then and during performances.
One of the most effective ways to ensure good sound quality at safe levels in the theater is to use multiple speakers placed at different distances. Equalizing sound throughout the auditorium rather than placing only two speakers near the stage will eliminate the need to have those speakers turned up so loud they’ll cause damage.
What else can you do to help your hearing? While it’s true that earwax buildup can impede hearing, exercise caution using cotton swabs. You can actually puncture the eardrum with overly vigorous use (or an untimely sneeze). Besides, earwax protects the skin, provides lubrication inside the ear, and aids in protection from organisms like fungi. If you need help removing earwax, ask your health professional to either irrigate your ear or teach you how to do it safely yourself.
Nutrition counts. Eating folate-rich foods like leafy green vegetables and dried beans may help prevent hearing loss. A 2007 study by Jane Durga at Wageningen University (Netherlands) found that study participants who were given folic acid supplements experienced slightly less low-frequency hearing loss than participants who received placebos. Another interesting finding came from Bamini Gopinath of Australia’s Westmead Millennium Institute, whose 2010 study concluded that people who ate excessive diets of sugar and carbohydrates were more likely to develop hearing loss.
Sleep quality helps too. In 2012 Jau-Jian Sheau, MD, and colleagues at Taipei Medical University Hospital reviewed the medical records of 19,000 patients. Out of 3,200 cases of sudden deafness, 240 suffered from sleep apnea, the interruption of breathing during sleep.
If you detect changes in your hearing, take a good hard listen to what’s going on around you, and see a medical professional. These steps may increase your chances of reversing any loss.
Be smart. Listen to your instincts and pay attention to your best interests. In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.
I have faith in you.