Hunters, hearing loss and new technology to fix it

If ever there was an epidemic in the hunting community, it would be hearing loss. When target practice is a way of life, it’s easy to become indifferent about earmuffs. When that dollar is about to cross the crest, getting your earplugs stuck is the least of your worries. For those reasons, most of us will spend the rest of our lives unable to hear the pheasant crow and the elk bugle as well as we should.

It does not have to be this way. You can take action now to stop hearing loss with simple, affordable, or technologically advanced solutions.

Dr. Grace Sturdivant is an evangelist to save eardrums from hunters. She began her career as a Vanderbilt-trained doctor of audiology and spent years researching, diagnosing and treating hearing loss. Eventually, however, she decided to take a more proactive approach.

“I have moved away from traditional academic medical practice,” Sturdivant told MeatEater. “I want to prevent and delay the problems that I spent so many years treating in people weakened by this largely preventable problem. And they got this problem by doing these valuable things that they love.”

Raised in a hunting family in Mississippi, she wasn’t about to tell shooters to stop shooting: “I want them to keep doing what they’re doing. I just want to give you some tools to do it more safely.”

That desire led her to found her company, OtoPro Technologies. Through this business, Sturdivant advocates for hearing protection as she consults with shooters, musicians, pilots, builders, machine operators, and others who handle loud noise for work or pleasure.

“I love music. I don’t want to tell people ‘Don’t go front and center on your favorite show.’ the rim and your ears won’t ring all night,” he said. “That’s the whole mission. Even if it’s just educating you on how to use foam earplugs properly, that’s great.”

How do weapons affect hearing?

Sturdivant cites a University of Wisconsin study that found men ages 48 to 92 who hunted regularly were more likely to experience high-frequency hearing loss, a risk that increased 7 percent for every five years a man had been hunting. hunting. Of the participants surveyed, 38% of recreational shooters and 95% said they had never worn hearing protection while shooting in the past year.

Another more recent study found that the use of hearing protection while shooting has increased in recent years, but hearing loss is still a big problem. Still, there are many factors to consider to mitigate.

“High-intensity impulsive sounds will permanently damage delicate cochlear structures, and therefore people who shoot firearms are at greater risk of high-frequency, bilateral noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) than groups of non-firing pairs,” the study said. the authors wrote. “In this article, we describe several factors that influence the risk of NIHL, including the use of a muzzle brake, the number of shots, the distance between shooters, the shooting environment, the choice of ammunition, the use of a muffler, and fit and use of hearing protection.

But what actually happens when we pull the trigger that makes our ears hurt and malfunction as a result?

“When you think of decibels, think of them in terms of sound pressure level, which is exactly what a decibel is,” Sturdivant said. “And with one shot, you typically have a sound pressure level of around 150 decibels. And when that amount of sound pressure hits the auditory nerve, it’s hitting those hair fibers which are just these tiny, delicate hair fibers that send the sound to the brain. It’s hitting them very hard and very fast, like an impulsive impact. So the amount those hair cells can instantly withstand from a sound pressure level of 150 decibels isn’t much. So often you’ll see instant damage or at least instant debuff at that level.”

Rather, he said, it could withstand a lower decibel level for much longer. But even 80 decibel noise for a long time will weaken those microscopic hair fibers in your ears. Those organs can recover and regenerate, but you must give them time to do so after exposure to loud noise. However, if you let the problem go on for long enough, you might face even worse problems.

“Of course, not just the communication difficulties and just the frustration of not being able to listen; there really is more to it than that,” Sturdivant said. “And a big reason I started this business was because of all the connections we see in the area of ​​cognitive decline and dementia with hearing loss. Because we actually hear with our brains, and when those hair cells can send the signal in a healthy way to the brain for processing, it’s stimulating some very specific areas of the brain. And when those areas are not stimulated, we see an earlier onset and faster rate of cognitive decline with various forms of dementia.”

Sturdivant said most people wait seven to 10 years to do anything about their hearing loss. That may allow cognitive decline to take hold sooner than it would otherwise. As with most medications, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

How to protect your ears while shooting

Hearing protection technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, especially by military contractors and European companies. While there are already plenty of great deals on the consumer-hunting market, there’s a lot more ultra-modern technology out there that you probably haven’t heard of yet. Sturdivant stays very up-to-date on all the cutting-edge ear care devices available around the world.

One of the most important developments that has recently become widely available to consumers is simple and affordable personalized accessories.

“Customization is very important because we want an air-tight seal of your ear,” he said. “If there is any air leak, sound waves are getting through.”

It’s also a big help if, for example, you got punched in the head in high school or damaged your ear canals in sports or accidents, putting you in the minority when it comes to size earplugs only.

Some newer offerings also allow air to pass through to help beat that stuffy, pressurized airplane cabin feeling you get with airtight earplugs.

“There are many passive filters for hunting and shooting. This is amazing because it allows most of it and allows an exchange of air. When you wear it for the first time, you wonder, does it really fit my ear? Because I can feel the air, which is weird. But that’s the main point,” Sturdivant said. “There is a sound pressure membrane that vibrates to let sound through and then hardens to a sound pressure level of 95 decibels. So, it’s an all-or-nothing filter.”

For hunters who may have already had their eardrums pounded, a favorite feature is the ambient microphones built into the earplugs that amplify ambient noise, allowing them to still (or even more) hear the snort of a deer or the whistle of a the wings of a goose. On the shooting range, that means you don’t need to remove your headphones and earplugs between each target session to record what your friends are yelling at you. Ambient noise will sound pretty much normal, but the plugs will immediately block concussion from a gunshot.

Some of the higher-end models offer Bluetooth streaming capability, so you can play your favorite podcast while hitting targets or running the circular saw. Some of these also offer wind noise reduction features or the ability to adjust the volume level for both ears individually. There are solutions for every situation and budget, from OtoPro’s new patented universal passive filter earplugs to $300 custom kits.

Of course, none of this is to say that you can’t protect your ears well with items you probably already own (or could painlessly acquire). Sturdivant says cheap foam earplugs make a big difference, as long as they’re inserted correctly. Pinch and roll the tip tightly, then push it in far enough so that none of the material extends out of your ears, creating a sound-tight seal. Combine that with an affordable pair of Caldwell earmuffs and you’ll be a long way from saving your ears for later in life.

Sturdivant said he’s seeing a tidal change in the way hunters view protecting themselves and others. People over 60 tend to think the damage has already been done, he said, but younger generations — those who grew up with mandatory seat belt laws, for example — are starting to be more proactive and invest in measures preventive. That may be more true for parents introducing their children to hunting and shooting. If you start young enough with good hearing protection, there is no reason why a person should lose their hearing skills. Sturdivant hopes that trend will continue to grow and encourages all hunters and shooters to share the same message with their family and friends.

“My job is to motivate you, protect your hearing. Your job is to condemn yourself and be determined to say, ‘I’m going to get over this bump and this will become my new normal.’ And then it becomes second nature,” she concluded. “Hearing protection just needs to be another piece of essential safety gear for hunters.”