Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Living with hearing damage - Part III

“Grandpa, time for dinner.”



“You don’t need to shout. I’m not deaf you know.”

Well, actually grandpa is deaf. He also suffers from a condition called recruitment. And he’s not alone. Most people with hearing loss have recruitment, whether that hearing loss is from noise damage or normal wear and tear. Recruitment is both a marvel and a menace, and dreadfully difficult to understand. It can also be a challenge to live with.

When the hearing cells in a certain region of the cochlea have died off, they can no longer capture and process sound. When sounds in the damaged range hit the ear, the hearing mechanism does a wondrous thing: it recruits other cells to help out. Trouble is, those cells are already working full time interpreting sounds in their own range. The result is that the recruited cells have to put out more energy. The more cells that are recruited, the more energy created and the more the cells are overworked. Hence the impression that the sound is abnormally loud. In extreme cases, the recruited cells will also push the ear into pain.

Dead hearing cells stay dead. Your hearing in that range stays dead as well. And if this hearing loss is accompanied by recruitment, then the recruitment is also permanent. There is no solution other than to keep those sounds away from the ear or within limits that don’t cause distress. In my own case, I have “profound” damage in the region from 2400hz to 3000hz. Sometimes this is called a ‘hi-hat hole’, and for good reason. A hi-hat puts out a lot of energy in this range and is usually just inches from a drummer’s head. I have hi-hat damage in both ears, though less so on the non-hi-hat side. (I attribute the damage there to a succession of screaming lead guitar players, to remain un-named -- but it was very nearly worth it to have played with those people.)

So, what can we do about this?

Unfortunately, there are not many options. Recruitment is permanent and may worsen as more hearing cells die off with age. The only treatment is to prevent sounds from reaching the affected area of the inner ear. This can be tricky. If the damage is in a critical area, such as the area responsible for hearing speech, then cutting off these sounds can have unfortunate consequences. But we don't need to go to drastic lengths here. You may be able to live quite nicely by adopting a quiet lifestyle. I went from professional drummer to computer programmer, working with nice, quiet computers. Not my first choice, but I wasn’t in a position to argue.

You can also get ear moulds that filter out certain frequency ranges. It's not a very flexible approach but it might be sufficient. Ear moulds can be a bit pricy but are well worth it if they help you get through the day without distress. Think of the initial cost as about a dollar a day – less than your daily hit of latté.

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