Rob Brown, MD

A Physician's Unique Perspective on Wellness

Category: Sound and Resonance

Are You Slowly Going Deaf Exercising with Those Ear Buds?

Walk through any gym, and you’re likely to see people on the treadmill or working out, listening to music through a set of ear buds — and perhaps suffering ear damage from loud noise. Most people don’t realize it, but the combination of exercise and loud music can cause you to slowly go deaf.

We have been working out to music for decades. Years ago, music was a shared experience, played in the background. In fact, some based membership decisions on the type of music played at the gym.

MP3 players like the Walkman and then the iPod came around, and everything changed. These devices, when used with ear buds, block out extraneous noise while delivering music directly down the ear canal. Seems like a great idea, but ear buds have been shown to be able to wreak havoc on the inner ear.

When young, I mistakenly thought that when people became deaf, it was because their eardrum popped. Whereas this can happen with an extremely loud noise, such as an explosion, this “all or none” effect isn’t the typical way one loses their hearing. More commonly, it’s a slow, insidious process of ear damage from loud noise, called noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). This form of deterioration can begin at any age from childhood through old age. This is a preventable form of hearing loss that occurs from repeated exposure to excessively loud sound.

NIHL is a common condition. The National Institutes of Health report that approximately one out of seven Americans (15%) aged 20 to 69 have hearing loss related to occupational or leisure activities, presumably from chronic exposure to loud noise and/or music. People with this form of hearing degeneration initially present with the inability to discriminate between different sounds or a hypersensitivity to certain sounds. Ringing in the ears, referred to as tinnitus, can also occur. Eventually, a hearing aid is needed.

Hearing requires more than just an intact eardrum.

The ear is the first part of an apparatus that first converts vibrational waves of energy into mechanical vibration and following, into electrical impulses which travel from the inner ear to the brain. The brain is where we interpret this information as something we call “sound”. The switch from mechanical vibration to electrical impulse occurs within a structure of the inner ear called the cochlea.

The cochlea is filled with fluid and contains a collection of cells with tiny protruding hairs called cilia. Mechanical vibrations transmitted within the fluid cause the cilia to vibrate. The cells housing the cilia change this mechanical information into an electrical nerve impulse which is then transmitted to the brain.

Each time we are exposed to excessively loud noise, tiny blood vessels that supply the cells in the cochlea constrict, diminishing its blood supply. If the blood supply is reduced too drastically, the cells sporting the cilia can die. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. They can’t grow back.

Where does exercise fit in?

During exercise, blood is diverted to the body’s active muscles that need oxygen and nutrients. This redirection of blood will cause a decrease in blood flow to the cochlea. By itself, this is not a problem for the cells in the cochlea. But mix loud music with exercise, and there is a compounding effect on the blood vessel constriction, doubling the risk for damage. More damage leads to more eventual hearing loss.

The maximum sound intensity that is safe under normal activity and health is 80 decibels. This equates to the noise level generated by running the vacuum cleaner or garbage disposal. Sounds over 85 dB can cause hearing loss. In general, if you are wearing ear buds and can’t hear when someone is talking to you in a normal tone voice, the volume is probably turned up to loud.

Listening to music while exercising can give an energy boost. We become entrained with the music and as a result, it motivates us to move and perform with the rhythm. The good news is that the music doesn’t need to be loud to receive this beneficial effect.

See also: 5G: How to Protect Your Health 

A Powerful Friend with Resonance

405d63433b45f3163d19a35f9ee59b56The ability to hear and discriminate between different sounds is a gift. Our world is infiltrated with tone which we have learned to manipulate to create music. Aside from melody recognition and lyric interpretation, I have recently become appreciative of the subtle impacts that notes and music can have on one’s wellbeing. During two recent, but dissimilar experiences with sound, I have become aware that notes and music transmit more than just a melody.

My first experience occurred in Sedona, AZ. I had been curious about the technique of sound healing and good friends recommended I contact a practitioner from Brazil. As I walked into his studio, I noticed beautiful glass and metallic bowls scattered around the room, in addition to gongs, and other mysterious instruments. Porangui, the healer, instructed me to lay down on the table and covered my eyes with a soft cloth. As I lay there, I began to hear rich, complex, overlapping tones with varying intensity that made my body vibrate.

At first, I intellectualized the experience, reasoning that I was hearing Porangui play the various instruments. I knew that I needed to surrender to the experience though, and relax if I was going to benefit from the treatment. I focussed on my breath to bring about a meditative state and as I fell deeper and deeper into relaxation, I suddenly felt detached from my physical body. My consciousness wasn’t floating above the table or in the corner of the room, as some have reported with an out of body experience. Instead, I existed only as a stationary ball of light in the void of space. At varying distances from my orb presence, I sensed additional sources of light, which provided me with a sense of my relative position in space. These sources of illumination must have represented the sound energy originated from each of the singing bowls as they were played. It was a profound experience, induced by tonal sound.

IMG_1740Jennifer’s vocal performance at Eastman school of music was equally momentous. The operatic pieces she selected were unfamiliar to me. I imagined that most people in the audience had no comprehension of the words as each piece was sung in a different language. Yet, my niece captivated the audience with her gorgeous soprano voice during the weekend of her senior recital. As we listened, we were filled with awe, even reverence, that brought unexpected tears to our eyes. Even the legendary singer/songwriter Carole King, in town raising support for Hillary Clinton, dabbed her eyes with tissues as she listened to Jennifer’s performance. It was a truly uplifting experience, after which we were all filled with intense joy.

The notes that create music including those produced by a singing bowl, an acoustic instrument or a human voice, can create resonance, a phenomenon in which sound imparts energy into materials that are “tuned” to the same frequency. The classic example of an opera singer forcefully singing a singular note and imparting so much energy into a wine glass that it will shatter, is a real phenomenon. Most every physical object has a frequency at which it will resonate. In addition, individual parts of a whole can each have their own unique resonant frequencies. As all living beings have the ability to resonate, absorbing energy through resonance may explain why even plants grow better when they are sung to or played music.

Live acoustic music and analogue recordings provide a continuous, complex mixture of dominant notes and overtones called harmonics, each of which can also cause resonance. The mixture of a note with its complex of harmonics gives the tone a richness, called timbre. Digitized music by its nature, provides fewer harmonics and less timbre.

Listening to music can help calibrate or “tune” our bodies. To experience this sensation, sit outside and listen to the birds chirping and singing. Then, focus your sense of hearing by turning off your vision by either closing your eyes, or better yet, placing a blindfold on. Relax and you will instantly become aware of where you are in space, in relation to the sounds you are hearing. It may be disorienting or even frightening at first for you will feel vulnerable. You may be tempted to open your eyes or remove your blindfold, but sit with your eyes closed for 5 or 10 minutes and just relax, listening. After a short while, you will grounded and positioned by the sounds you hear.

Listening to or playing music each day,especially acoustic or analogue music can improve your health. Whether you sing in the shower or in the car while listening to the radio, producing music with your voice will benefit you, by imparting you with energy and reducing stress.

Music has always been emphasized in our family. I love to hear the sounds of my children practicing the piano and the violin each day. We even have two “singing bowls”, which someone will occasionally strike. If I am feeling uneasy or stressed, playing the singing bowl and filling up the room with its rich vibrational tone instantly brings me a sense of peace and serenity.

It can be wonderful to have an acoustic instrument at home. Having your children listen to or learn to play music, particularly classical music, is wonderful for brain development. Have you heard of the Mozart effect?

Sound is the only sense that we can consciously produce as well as absorb. So, enjoy it by bringing music into your home and playing or listening daily.

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