Although most hearing loss comes from years of exposure to loud noises, some extremely loud noises can cause instant and permanent hearing loss. Hunters face a unique hearing dilemma: They must be able to hear the soft footfalls of approaching deer or other game, yet need ear protection when they fire a high-powered rifle or other high-decibel firearm. When you lose hearing, it almost never comes back. Hearing loss due to noise exposure is the only type of permanent hearing loss that can be prevented.

When noise is too loud, it begins to kill the nerve endings in the inner ear. Prolonged exposure to loud noise destroys nerve endings, and the longer you are exposed to a loud noise, the more damaging it can be. As the number of nerve endings decreases, so does your hearing. There is no way to restore dead nerve endings; the damage is permanent.

Audiologist Lori Fish, M.S.-A with Fort HealthCare Audiology points out, “What many hunters don’t realize about noise exposure is that the sound pressure level of many shotguns is such that it only takes that brief moment of the blast to sustain permanent nerve damage, so every year of that momentary exposure has a cumulative effect on the hearing nerve.”

Fish sees more hunters and gun enthusiasts in her practice, as of late. “All kinds of outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the sounds of nature,” she says. “This area has several trap shooting ranges and hunt clubs whose members are seeking both hearing enhancement and protection. The technology just keeps improving.”

Fish helps her patients by diagnosing, treating and preventing hearing loss, and dispenses hearing aids and other specialized equipment. Fish’s expertise in hearing enhancement has also been of great benefit to hunters. She specializes in custom ear molds for electronic earplugs, such as Game Ear, which can make the gaming experience as rewarding as possible. “These devices are able to provide amplification to better put a hunter in touch with his or her environment, his game, and at the same time be able to protect his or her hearing from being damaged.”

Phillip Lenox, a patient of Fish’s, feels strongly that hearing protection is important, and is an experienced Game Ear user, “I’m 60 years old and have been wearing hearing aids for about 27 years now. Since I didn’t want to give up my hunting or wear clunky earmuffs in the field, I asked Lori about Game Ears and custom molds. I already knew that I would not like the foam ear plugs that are standard with most noise protection products. They get dirty, you can’t clean them, they quit forming to your ear, and they are rather uncomfortable as well. The custom ear molds do not have these drawbacks.”

Lenox continues, “The Game Ear units that Lori sells are really great, and the ear molds are Lori’s forte. The price for the Game Ears is about the same as you’d find elsewhere, but with Lori, you get someone to stand behind them and service them if needed. I wear mine a lot – with hunting, of course, but also while mowing the lawn and operating anything that has an engine or makes a lot of noise. You’d be surprised how often you can – and probably should – wear them. Also, you will hear a lot more with them than without them. They actually enhance your hearing, and completely keep the damaging noise out of your ears.”

Hearing protectors come in two forms: earplugs and earmuffs. One should wear hearing protection whenever they are going to be around loud noises, as when using power tools,
noisy yard equipment, firearms, or riding a motorcycle or snowmobile. Earplugs are small inserts that fit into the outer ear canal. They must be sealed snugly so the entire circumference of the ear is blocked. An improperly fitted, dirty, or worn-out plug may not seal properly and can result in irritation of the ear canal, making custom-fit ear plugs the best option.

Earmuffs fit over the entire outer ear to form an air seal so the entire circumference of the ear canal is blocked, and they are held in place by an adjustable band. Earmuffs will not seal around eyeglasses or long hair, and the adjustable headband tension must be sufficient to hold earmuffs firmly in place. For longer-wearing periods, they can be cumbersome.

Fish cautions against buying from mass merchandisers, though. “What you’re not getting is the custom fit ear molds, and the servicing and tuning you need to really get the most benefit from the product,” she says. While hearing enhancement is an obvious advantage with these products, the sound-activated compression circuit is of greater use, protecting the ears from loud sounds such as muzzle-blasts.

Lenox adds, “I’ve tried a lot of hearing products out there and there is a lot of junk. It’s cheap, but it’s junk. Hearing loss is usually incremental and doesn’t hurt. By the time I realized I had lost some hearing ability, it was too late to reverse it. Take care of those ears. Hearing nerve damage is permanent.”

Fish continues, “Hearing loss usually develops over a period of several years. Because it is painless and gradual, you might not notice it. What you might notice is a ringing or other sound in your ear (tinnitus), or you may have trouble understanding what people say; they may seem to be mumbling, especially when you are in a noisy place such as a crowd or a party. This could be the beginning of hearing loss. A hearing test will detect this problem.”

“Preventing hearing loss is always better than trying to aid it after damage has been done, but there are a lot of options available that can help. I work with people of all ages to determine what hearing solutions will work best for them.” Fish offers free hearing screenings for adults at her Fort Atkinson, Whitewater and Edgerton locations. She is also a distributor of Game Ears (electronic earplugs), and can customize any type of ear molds for better fit and function. To make an appointment, contact Fort HealthCare Audiology at (920) 563-6667.

Most people who begin to lose their hearing need a reason to take action; either in protecting their remaining hearing, or by enhancing their decreased hearing with hearing aids. “For some, this reason might be the inability to hear the phone ring, or perhaps enjoy the playful voice of a grandchild. For a hunter, it might be the inability to hear the soft crunch of a deer’s footsteps. I want to help people protect their hearing so they can enjoy all of those things that they love to do.” Fish adds.