- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

Pam Mason knows as well as any music fan the perks of MP3 players like Apple’s iconic IPod.

Ms. Mason, director of Audiology Professional Practices with the American Speech-Language Hearing Association in Rockville, says her tiny IPod shuffle carries a stunning amount of music despite its sleek and slender profile.

And there’s the rub for Ms. Mason and anyone else dabbling in digital music.

Give someone an MP3 player with a fully charged battery and they have hours upon hours of music.

And if it’s too loud, they may be visiting Ms. Mason’s peers long before their golden years.

While the Generation Xers could damage their eardrums with limited capacity Walkman devices, today’s tech devotees can bombard their senses for hours on end without changing batteries or switching albums.

And as hearing specialists warn, the one-two punch against healthy hearing is loud noise over an extended amount of time.

So far, Ms. Mason and her peers aren’t sure just how dangerous the devices can be if used improperly.

“There hasn’t been enough time since the digital music players have been available for research to be completed,” she says.

But she has an educated guess what future researchers will find.

“We’re going to see a greater incidence of hearing loss with digital technology,” she says. “It’s just so convenient to enjoy it for any length of time.”

Still, Ms. Mason is torn.

“It’s a wonderful technology. … The digital domain is high fidelity and enjoyable,” she says.

The gadgets also open up a range of educational options, such as having children prepare book reports as podcasts to be downloaded onto their MP3 players.

That’s even more reason why children and adults alike should understand the hearing issues that can emerge with overuse.

“It’s a critical time for parents and teachers to understand that noise-induced hearing loss is preventable,” she says, adding anecdotally that auditory clinics are treating more children with noise-induced hearing problems than in the past.

Audio specialists generally agree that sounds up to 85 decibels can be heard with little consequence, like from a motorcycle engine or a noisy arcade game, Ms. Mason says. But once the decibel level reaches triple digits, problems can occur. And those problems magnify with prolonged exposure to constant loud noises.

The human ear works by converting sound waves into electrical signals that ultimately travel to the brain for interpretation. Sound causes vibrations in the eardrum that are then sent to, and amplified by, three small bones in the middle ear. The vibrations then travel to the inner ear where hair cells translate the vibrations into nerve impulses.

Constant noise pollution, or a single burst of intense sound, can damage the hair cells and impede hearing. Typically, that involves noise in high frequencies, stripping sound of distinctions that are key to hearing the nuances of language, among other sounds.

Teri Wilson-Bridges, director of Washington Hospital Center’s Hearing and Speech Center, says doctors used to treat adults in their 60s and 70s suffering from hearing loss.

Lately, the age of those patients has dropped to include adults in their late 40s and early 50s, Ms. Wilson-Bridges says.

It’s too early to pin the changes on the digital revolution, but the technology does make it easier to expose oneself to a steady wall of sound.

Some sound damage, she says, is reversible.

Most people have attended a loud rock concert at some point and left with their hearing seemingly impaired. The person might experience minor ringing in the ears, or sound may be more muffled than usual. Typically, in a few hours, if not days later, hearing is back to normal.

Few music lovers will forgo their favorite concerts, but that doesn’t mean they should take unnecessary risks, Ms. Wilson-Bridges says.

When listening to an hour of music on an MP3 player, take a break every 15 minutes, she says.

Some manufacturers are taking a proactive response to potential hearing-loss issues.

Apple, the makers of the popular IPod, feature some solid information about hearing loss and volume levels on the corporate Web site (www.apple.com/sound/). The company also announced in March a software update for IPod and related gadgets allowing users to set their own volume limits (www.apple.com/ipod/download).

For many MP3 users, the warnings regard the future, not the present. That isn’t always the case.

Dr. H. Jeffrey Kim, an ear specialist at Georgetown University Hospital, says he treated a patient recently who suffered minor hearing loss in one of her ears. That ear is also the one in which she plugs in an ear bud to listen to books on her IPod during her weekday commute.

Such a prognosis is disheartening, but it’s also a call for action.

“When you lose hearing from acoustic trauma, it’s permanent but not progressive,” Dr. Kim says.

The problem for many Metro riders is using their headphones to drown out exterior noise. That can lead to trouble, so Dr. Kim suggests headphones that eliminate background noise.

Dr. Neil Cherian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Neurology and Otoneurology says one of the difficulties involving hearing loss is that by the time someone acknowledges the problem, it’s too late.

“A lot of processes or functions of the body you’re not aware of until it goes awry,” Dr. Cherian says. “Your ears don’t tell you anything until you notice there’s a problem with it. If you lose vision, you’re in the hospital. If you have a hearing problem, whether it’s mild or severe, we often blow it off.”

Steady noise exposure might not lead to hearing loss, but it could spark a condition known as tinnitus. The Who’s Pete Townshend suffers from the complex condition, which causes people to hear a buzzing sound when no such sound exists.

Dr. Cherian says “acoustic trauma” is believed to be one of several likely causes of tinnitus. Other potential sources, he says, include head trauma and inner-ear infections.

If music fans won’t give up their IPods and MP3 players, then Dr. Cherian says to use a little common sense before rocking out.

“My mantra is, if you think it’s too loud, it probably is,” he says.

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