Nearly four weeks ago, I caught an ordinary cold. The next day, both of my ears were clogged up, which is pretty typical when I get a cold. After a couple of days of being aggravated with my clogged ears and not being able to hear very well (I do, after all, make my living from my hearing), I did something I had done countless times before: To try to clear my ears, I held my nose and blew air through my ears, the same way I do when trying to equalize my ear pressure after flying or scuba diving.
I didn’t get much in the way of results, so I blew a little harder. Suddenly, I felt an excruciating pain in my left ear. It lasted about 30 seconds, and then subsided. The first thing I noticed (after getting over the shock of the pain) was that I couldn’t hear anything out of my left ear — absolutely nothing. I have to say, it was a pretty frightening moment for me, considering I had never experienced the sensation before. Suddenly, I was hearing everything “in mono,” from only my right ear. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get my hearing back in my left ear.
I eventually went to my doctor, who took one look in my left ear and reeled backwards. “In all my years of practicing medicine, I’d have to say this is in my top 20,” he said. I explained to him how I had blown through my ears, the sudden, extreme pain I had felt, and my subsequent loss of hearing. “Don’t ever do that again!” said the doctor. Here’s what had happened: As a side-effect of my cold, I had very quickly developed a serious infection in my left ear. That was already bad enough, but when I had blown air through my ears, the pressure on my left eardrum was already so great from the infection that it just couldn’t handle it, and the eardrum ruptured. That’s right: I had ruptured an eardrum simply by blowing air into my ears trying to clear them!
The terms “ruptured eardrum” and “loss of hearing” are a nightmare for someone who makes his living from his hearing. I have to admit, I was pretty scared. My doctor sent me to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist who started immediate treatment on my ear, with a combination of antibiotics, steroids, and several other medications. That was more than four weeks ago, and although the infection is gone and my eardrum has significantly healed, I still can’t hear out of my left ear. The ENT specialist assures me that, in most cases, hearing will eventually return after a ruptured eardrum heals, but it takes time and you just have to wait it out. He’s hoping that I’ll have my hearing back in another month, at which time he’d like me to take a hearing test — just to make sure.
This whole experience has gotten me thinking a lot about how essential — but how fragile — our hearing is, and how much we all take it for granted. As a music professional, I’ve been pretty fanatical about protecting my hearing for more than 30 years — at least when I’m thinking about it. During recording, mixing and mastering sessions in the studio, I tend to keep the monitors much quieter than most people do, and when I do turn up the volume, it’s never for very long. I always take ear plugs with me to live music events, and I almost always end up wearing them, even if the music isn’t very loud.
So even though I thought I was very responsible and careful with my hearing, I did a very stupid thing when I tried to open my ears by blowing air into them. In the process, I put myself temporarily out of work, but more importantly, I risked causing permanent damage to my hearing — the one thing I absolutely cannot do without in order to do my job. I learned through this experience (and by looking at posters on the ENT specialist’s office walls) just how amazingly complicated and prone to damage the human hearing system is. There are a lot of little, tiny parts that all have to work together, and if any one of them is damaged, our hearing can be toast. Needless to say, I have a newfound appreciation for the magic that is our hearing, and will be a lot more careful with mine for the rest of my life.
I hope my telling this story will get you to appreciate your own hearing just a little more, and perhaps get you to start doing some things that you haven’t done in the past to protect and preserve it — especially if you are a music professional like me. We only get one gift of hearing, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Here are a few suggestions that you can easily incorporate into your life to be kind to your ears — they’ll thank your for it!
1) Whenever you’re in the studio, always monitor at low volumes. 85 dB (decibels) or less is the safe zone; anything above that, for sustained periods of time, can damage your hearing, permanently. If you have to turn up the volume louder than that, do so for only a very brief period of time. And always be careful of loud transients (quick spikes in sound); a single one can damage your hearing for life. For example, always turn the volume all the way down whenever turning your speakers on or off, just in case. If you have no idea how loud you monitor in the studio now, it’s easy to find out: you can either buy a basic, inexpensive decibel meter at a place like Radio Shack, or, while less accurate, download one of the many free decibel meter apps now available for portable devices like phones and tablets. And never, ever get up close to a guitar amp, kick drum or snare drum when setting things up in the studio. They can produce sound at levels upwards of 150 dB — more than enough to cause permanent hearing loss in seconds.
2) Whenever you go to a live music event, always wear ear plugs. Most venues tend to keep the volume much, much louder than necessary, often approaching or exceeding our hearing’s “threshold of pain” (read: guaranteed to damage hearing) of 120 dB. Even a pair of super-basic foam plugs that only cost a couple of bucks at your local pharmacy will help reduce volume significantly when worn correctly. There are more expensive models that reduce levels without any strange aural side-effects (like the sensation of hearing everything “inside-your-head”) that are well worth the money. With those models, you can enjoy the music in all its sonic glory and protect your hearing with no inconvenience. If for some reason you don’t happen to have ear plugs with you at a show, then stuff your ears with toilet paper or facial tissue. Yep, you might look really silly, but you’ll also the person whose ears won’t be ringing the next morning like almost everyone else’s will (ringing in the ears is a dead giveaway that our ears have been exposed to too much, hearing-damaging volume).
3) Similarly, whenever you perform music live, wear ear plugs if there is any kind of amplification — especially monitors. There are companies that specialize in custom ear plugs for musicians that are designed to be worn while performing. They are molded specifically to your ears, so not only do they protect your hearing and allow you to hear everything clearly on stage (just at a reasonable volume), they’re also incredibly comfortable. Some can even be matched to your flesh color, so they’re virtually invisible to the audience. Ideally, instead of floor monitors or side fills, use in-ear monitors instead. Not only do in-ears allow you to hear the mix much better onstage, they typically only require about a quarter of the volume to be perfectly audible compared to floor wedges or side fills. And as with custom ear plugs, many companies make custom-molded models matched to your flesh tone. Nowadays, in-ear monitors even come adorned as fashion statements (check out Ariana Grande’s rhinestone-adorned ones that match her stage outfits!).
4) Last but not least, if your ears get clogged up, DO NOT TRY TO CLEAR THEM BY HOLDING YOUR NOSE AND BLOWING AIR INTO THEM! If your ears stay clogged for more than a few days, go see a doctor. Don’t try to take matters into your own hands; I learned that one the hard way.
(Photo courtesy of hearingtestlabs.com.)