ATGATT? That Includes Motorcycle Hearing Protection

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ATGATT? That Includes Motorcycle Hearing Protection

Long-term hearing damage is a real threat to motorcyclists, and I recently spent some time on the phone with Etymotic audiologist Dr. Patty Johnson AuD to discuss the best ways to protect our hearing.  During our conversation, I unleashed the full spectrum of questions I’d cooked up during years spent riding motorcycles and worrying about my ears.

Background photo by Juanjo Viagran

The initial motivation for me to contact an audio expert, however, wasn’t motorcycle-related.  I’d been researching in-ear—rather than over-the ear—aviation headsets, and had read on an aviation forum that even if in-ear headsets sound quiet, vibrations from sound waves can travel through the bones around your ears and still cause damage.  So that’s where I started the interview.

RideApart: During some research, I read that it’s possible to sustain hearing damage even if you’re wearing earplugs. This is apparently because noise can travel through bones, which can damage your ears—even if a noise doesn’t perceptibly seem loud to you at the time. Is that true?

Dr. Johnson: That depends.  If a sound is loud enough, yes, you can damage your hearing even while wearing earplugs.  One of the best examples is people who work on an aircraft carrier, where the levels are really high—150 – 160 dB.  People working there are using foam earplugs inserted deeply plus earmuffs. Even with that double protection, the exposure is so high that if they really want to limit risk, they have to limit time in the environment.

Allowable weekly hearing exposure to be safe

Recommended maximum weekly exposure

Sound is energy and is a wave.  It’s pushing on your body, not just your ear.  It does get transmitted through the skull at that high a level.  If you had maximum protection—no ear canal at all—that would protect your inner ear by about 60dB.  If the sound is 160 dB and you had no outer ear at all, then 100 dB would get to your inner ear.  Aircraft carriers, IEDs, and gunfire are extraordinarily loud.  There are some sounds that are so loud that you cannot prevent damage with just hearing protection, again, you also have to limit exposure time.

My Thoughts: The Etymotics’ Noise Exposure Chart got me thinking.  How can it be that you can safely listen to a chainsaw for only one minute each week—for a total of 520 minutes over a 1-decade period—but not for, say, 520 minutes in a row?

RideApart: Your hearing chart suggests that hearing damage isn’t cumulative if you limit exposure to a certain amount, and that ears can heal from day to day.  Is that the case?

Dr. Johnson: Yes. I think what you’re getting at is how the damage occurs.  When you have a big percussive shockwave that hits your ear like an explosion, it is possible to rupture the eardrum.  Behind the eardrum is the middle ear.  It has three little bones that pass the vibration onto the inner ear.  In an explosion, they can become disarticulated.  The wave is so strong that it permanently damages the stereocilia in the inner ear, and they cannot recover.

The situation you’re referring to is a situation of metabolic exhaustion or overload.  The inner ear, like any organ in our body, requires nutrients to function.  When we’re exposed to high-level of sound of over long durations, the ear uses up nutrients that are in the fluid in the inner ear.  The hair cells—the stereocilia—kind of lay down.  If you give the ear rest—quiet—the ear can recharge and recover, and the hair cells stand back up.  Ears ring after a loud sound exposure, and that’s because you did some temporary damage and the sterocilia layed down.  After a period of rest, they recover and stand upright.  That’s the metabolic story.

But there’s another piece of the story that has been coming out recently, from researchers doing work on animals.  I’m most familiar with a study by Dr. Kujawa and Dr. Liberman at Harvard.  They gave animals a noise dose that causes temporary hearing loss.  What they find is that after the animals have recovered, the stereocilia go back up, and the hearing levels recover.  When they dissect the animals’ inner ears later, however, they see damage to the nerve fibers that go from the stereocilia to the brain.  There is a swelling at the base of the hair cell and the nerve fiber deteriorates and detaches from the hair cell.  While the ear may have mechanically recovered, there is a loss off transmission of some of the sound to the brain.  It is subtle, but is progressive over time. Dr. Kujawa and Dr. Liberman think is that there is damage is beyond the level of the inner ear and it progresses over time.  We first start to notice it when we have trouble hearing people in a noisy place—because of the damaged nerve fibers.

As an audiologist, this work has completely changed the way I look at noise-induced hearing loss.   We used to think that temporary hearing changes were just temporary.   The animal models suggest that there are other things going on that we can’t measure, and mean that it is important that we protect our hearing even from “temporary” damage.

Continue Reading: Motorcycle Hearing Protection >>

  • Randy S

    +1 on custom earplugs. It’s worth the extra $ and makes rides very comfortable.

  • Braden

    Great article and great questions Nick. They mirror most of my own musings on hearing protection use. I use Howard Leight LPF-1s the majority of the time, or I switch between my Etymotic HF5s or ER-4PTs with foam plugs for longer trips. I try to be careful with my hearing while riding, and haven’t noticed any hearing loss (yet) over 6 years of riding and averaging 15k miles a year. As an amateur audiophile I value my hearing quite a bit, and try to stay attuned to any loss in hearing quality. Been meaning to get some custom ear molds for my Etymotics for forever. This article might have just convinced me.

    • nick2ny

      Thanks, Braden.

  • RT Moto

    I use 3M foam earplugs every time I ride and make a huge difference. It did take some getting used to at first but now I believe (straight personal opinion and not any sort of scientific fact) that I can hear almost everything that needs to be heard. Kind of like my ears got trained after time. On occasion I have ridden short distances without earplugs and with just that, my head hurt and I felt some fatigue. Riding with earplugs has been the norm for me for a while so you can say I’m now an advocate. Happy riding!

    • ThinkingInImages

      Same here (3M). They’re easy to get, inexpensive and they work well. I have a metal pill case on my keychain so I always have them on me, and a few extras under the seat. I’m a lot more focused and relaxed riding with them, than without them. I can hear what’s important.

  • Donnie Byers

    I use Etymotics myself. They make a world of difference, because I can block out almost all that is stoopid around me. lol. I just wish I had more than one pair…

    • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

      If I can block out ALL the stupid, I’m going to just leave them in once I get to work.

    • http://www.eastwestbrothersgarage.com/ East-West Brothers Garage

      I discovered the Etymotics as a musician and bought a separate pair to use on the bike. It is amazing how much of a difference it makes to be able to block certain wavelengths and not others, allowing me to still hear important sounds like a horn honking. The Etymotics serve as my daily use plugs while I keep some of the foam plugs on hand for those days when I ride super long distances and am on the bike all day. Having the plugs in makes a tremendous difference in reducing fatigue for me.

  • Stuki

    I guess it would be hard to build useful earmuffs into helmet liners.

    • nick2ny

      We’ve landed on the moon a bunch of times, though.

  • RyanO

    I use the orange/green foam earplugs that my squadron has for hearing protection at the track. On the street I have DIY custom molded earbuds for listening to tunes. I think I have a weird shaped ear or something because every earbud I ever had would work it’s way lose in my helmet. Finally molded my own from a kit off amazon and they are awesome.

  • Richard

    -1 on custom earplugs. Because they don’t expand and shift in the way that foamies do, they’re very prone to breaking their seal when you put your helmet on, move your jaw, etc.

    Be prepared for an audiologist to need multiple fittings (which also means round-trips to the company that actually makes the plugs) to get them to your spec. Most users of earplugs don’t want a deep, full fit, with a flat outer for use under a helmet; they want earplugs for sleeping in or swimming in.

    Also, for the $160 I paid for mine, I could have had a lifetime supply of Howard Leight Max (NRR33), which block way more noise and are more comfortable.

    I relegated my custom plugs for use under muffs while shooting. They’re a waste of money and inferior to foam plugs for riding. They’re better than the flanged attenuators — I use those for loud live music, but not for riding — but seriously: save yourself some money and stick with foamies.

    Lesson learned!

    • 200 Fathoms

      Yep…cheap foam plugs are better than nothing.

    • AlexKnolly

      Hearos Ultimate Softness are my favorite, they do the trick on the track for me and my bike is crazy loud. They also make some foam ones that block a bit more sound but are less comfortable called Xtreme.

  • Thomas Whitener

    If you get some Sugru (sugru.com), you can make a set of the custom earphones out of a pretty standard pair of earbuds. I used some cheap-ish Sony ones, and they not only sound great, fit easily in the helmet, but they also reduce the noise by more than the ETY’s I bought for the purpose.

    Also, I an listen to music, directions, or with my Sena SMH10, I can take phone calls. Love it.

    • Thomas Whitener

      And I know I’ve been pushing the Sugru solution every time it’s mentioned, but man, it’s just so easy, and they are so good. And Cheap. And comfortable.

      • HoldenL

        I’d never heard of that stuff before, but it looks really, really cool.

        • Thomas Whitener

          It has, no joke, changed my life. My wife and I use it for everything, and I just ordered another pack.

  • james

    +1 for custom, i got mine made at a recent bike show. Often you can get them through gun ranges and so on, very good investment.

  • Piglet2010
  • mjc_iv

    Wonderful article. Thanks.

  • Brian

    I myself use earplugs and have for years, but I have gotten “the talk” from several LEO’s ( both of the type I am friends/friendly with, and the adversarial giving me a ticket type) about the legality of them. In my locale, they are not legal, but I suspect you’de have to be a jackass to the cop in order to get that ticket in most cases. Regardless of my experience, please check your local laws and be informed about them and your rights in case you should have to be dealing with a LEO about those in whatever situation you happen to be in at the time.

    • nick2ny

      Is it legal to drive a car with the windows closed?

    • Kipling Inscore

      I just checked California—Earplugs are legal as long as you can hear horns and sirens.

      CA VC 27400: A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears. This prohibition does not apply to any of the following:
      CA VC 27400.d: “A person wearing personal hearing protectors in the form of earplugs or molds that are specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels. The plugs or molds shall be designed in a manner so as to not inhibit the wearer’s ability to hear a siren or horn from an emergency vehicle or a horn from another motor vehicle.”

      http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d12/vc27400.htm

  • Devin Byrnes

    Never considered ear plugs. I have never owned a loud bike and I don’t ride much over the limit – have not really noticed any deafness when I park the bike.

    • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

      Even just wind noise buffeting around and through the helmet can add up, even at 45MPH. Do it once, park the bike and pop out the plugs, and you’ll notice the difference in ambient sound.

  • Strafer

    On longer airplane trips I like to use noise cancelling headphones – less fatigue – ears feel better after landing
    I’m waiting to see something similar for motorcycle riding
    The advantage being noise cancelling can be turned on and off as needed (or automatically kick in and shut off as needed – ie less than a certain mph or less than a certain dB level) (in the city you want to hear as much as possible)
    Another advantage of noise cancelling headphones vs an ear plug is it would be possible to implement it in such a way that you could still listen to GPS directions through the headphones / listen to music if you wanted to / take phone calls / talk to others using bluetooth communication – all while still having the reduced noise

  • Jack Meoph

    I got written up by a cop for wearing earplugs before the law in CA changed. I tried explaining to him why I wore them, but to no avail. Just another tick in the “why I hate cops” column of my life.

    This looks like a deal: http://www.amazon.com/Alpine-Hearing-Protection-MusicSafe-Classic/dp/B0032BYCWG/ref=sr_1_13/183-5912043-5126761?ie=UTF8&qid=1390582145&sr=8-13&keywords=etymotic

    • HoldenL

      The same company, Alpine Hearing Protection, makes a motorcycle-specific product called MotoSafe. http://www.alpinehearingprotection.com/earplugs/motosafe/ I like it a lot, although with age, the noise-suppression tube tends to slide out easily from the silicone flanged plug. The MotoSafe does a good job of suppressing wind noise while letting you hear sirens, voices and music (although those are muffled a bit, too).

    • nick2ny

      Cops… tell me about it.

    • The Flying Kiwi

      You can thank LA Biker and current Secretary of State Debra Bowen for having the law changed after a few of us got too many tickets for it.

  • Davidabl2

    From the chart: “Blues bar/ rock Concert safe for 5mins.”
    It’s a wonder that more of us aren’t stone deaf :-)

  • Craig Wixon

    AfterSchokz headphones combined with earplugs. Best combination I’ve found thus far for stunning sound in-helmet and less wind noise.
    http://bit.ly/1mYZ6zo

  • Gregory Girgenti

    I had an audiologist custom mold silicone plugs from Mid States. I can wear them all day without discomfort and they are quieter than the disposable foam plugs I was using prior. Be sure to tell whoever makes the molds that they are meant to be worn under a motorcycle helmet. They must be flush with your ear so they don’t dislodge when you put your helmet on, or press against the helmet while in your ear. If done properly custom plugs work better than disposable. If done wrong they won’t work at all.

  • Thatmanstu

    Custom “shooting” earplugs and those made by many audiologists are not ideal for motorcycle use. I would strongly suggest someone who specializes in custom motorcycle earplugs. Basic difference is the amount that sticks out of the ear canal. Too much and they can easily become displaced by your helmet and that same contact creates a sound conducting connection. Moto specific are molded with a much lower profile. Had mine for over 300k and 14 years. Best investment I ever made.I’ve been wearing ear plugs of one sort or another for over twenty years and over 400k miles, I am sorry I waited so long to start wearing them….

  • John

    I’ve recently started riding on highways for extended periods as part of my commute. I always wear earplugs (currently, foam squishy type).

    I’ve noticed two things in the last two months: (1) my ears ache, as though my bones are being bruised from the expanding foam slug in my ear canal–sometimes very painful; and (2) even though I’m wearing ear protection, I sense that I’m losing aspects of my hearing sensitivity.

    My question am I imagining things, or is what I’m experiencing not uncommon. If the latter, what can I do?