Have you ever played drums without hearing protection, only to find your ears ringing after you stopped? Before I started to wear ear plugs and headphones regularly, I encountered this phenomena quite a bit myself. I was aware of the term ‘Tinnitus’ but was always curious as to what caused it so I decided to find out.
Tinnitus is the ringing sound you hear after prolonged exposure to loud sounds (like a drum set). It is caused by damage done to the tiny sensory hair cells in the ear called cilia, which are responsible for sending sound signals to your brain. It is widely accepted that the ringing sound is perceived when your brain is expecting input from the damaged cilia, but doesn’t receive it.
Let’s explore some of the details of what I uncovered while researching the topic and learn how you can avoid damaging your ears by taking very simple precautionary steps. Before we continue though, please know that I’m not a doctor so this isn’t medical advice. I’m just sharing my own experiences and doing a ton of research from authoritative resources in order to stitch the information together for you.
OK – Let’s Go!
What is Tinnitus?
As drummers, we all love sitting down behind the kit, picking up those sticks, looking around for a brief second of anticipatory glory before hitting the first downbeat of “All My Life” by the Foo Fighters. It’s awesome!
But, if you’re doing this sort of thing without any kind of hearing protection, you will likely need to come to terms with tinnitus, which can be a fairly serious issue especially if you are repeatedly exposing yourself to these kinds of volumes and causing damage to your ears.
As I briefly stated at the beginning of this article, tinnitus (otherwise known as that annoying ringing in your ears) is generally caused by prolonged exposure to loud sounds over 85 decibels (dB). The volume of a drum set depends on many different factors, but is generally north of 100 dB, which makes a drummer the prime candidate for ear damage.
A brief anatomy lesson:
The inner ear, or cochlea, is located past the ear drum and middle ear. It is shaped like a snail and contains many thousands of cilia, or tiny hair cells located on the basilar membrane. These cilia are responsible for changing sound vibrations into electrical signals, which are then transmitted through the auditory nerve to the brain.
The inner ear is incredibly delicate so, as you can imagine, exposing your ears to these kinds of volumes over significant periods of time can cause damage to these cilia, which in turn produces that ringing sound you hear along with muffling just about everything else you are actually hearing. In some cases, tinnitus will also sound like whistling, buzzing or roaring.
Research suggests that the reason you ‘hear’ a ringing sound is that the brain is expecting signals from the damaged cilia which are no longer present. It instead misinterprets the lack of signal from these hair cells as a perceived ringing sound.
There are a number of studies which show that ringing in your ears may also be exacerbated by stress. So, if you’re a drummer and a frequent concert go-er, make sure you’re doing some yoga in your downtime to get rid of any excess stress.
How To Stop The Ringing
There is no cure or magic pill for tinnitus, however if you are not repeatedly damaging your ears, it will generally fade by itself over time. This in itself can cause anxiety and stress as a constant ringing in your ear tends to be a bit unnerving. As I mentioned above, this condition can only be made worse by stress, so if you want to kick it faster – it’s best to relax a bit.
Ringing in the ears caused by playing drums or attending a loud concert will generally fade within 12 to 48 hours. That said, if you frequently expose your ears to loud volumes, you might be causing more permanent damage and persistent issues with tinnitus.
There are a handful of techniques which you can incorporate into your daily routine to help reduce the presence of tinnitus:
- Avoid loud sounds (duh!): Don’t make it worse by going to a Metallica concert. And if you’ve just got to see them for the 7th time, please at least wear earplugs. Generally speaking though, you’ll want to avoid going to loud restaurants, wearing earbuds and will want to try speaking more quietly.
- De-Stress: Go find your local yoga studio or get a meditation app. Finding ways to reduce or eliminate stress from your life will not only help your tinnitus, but your every day life and happiness as well!
- Put down that latte: While there is little scientific information regarding caffeine, avoiding stimulants like coffee is said to help reduce the severity of tinnitus
- Also, put down that beer: Alcohol can increase blood flow into your inner ear, causing an increase in the ringing
- Use a white noise machine or relaxing sounds: An ambient soundtrack will help to distract you from the ringing and alleviate any related anxiety associated with it. It is also especially helpful when trying to get some sleep.
If you need some advice on hearing protection options, I did write an article about the most common types of hearing protection available, especially for kiddos.
How Long Does The Ringing Last?
There is really no clear cut answer to how long the ringing lasts, as there are many levels of severity to the damage caused by exposure to loud sounds.
Temporary tinnitus: The general consensus seems to be that the ringing in your ears can last anywhere from a few hours to a handful of days, but that is only in the case where you’ve experienced a single event which caused it to begin with. Examples of ‘events’ which could cause this temporary condition include exposing your unprotected ears to a gunshot, a loud concert or your drumming.
Persistent tinnitus:If you experience tinnitus even if you haven’t recently exposed your ears to any traumatic volume levels, you’ve likely done some permanent damage to your ears, either through drumming or some other factor. It goes without saying that this needs medical attention. While it could be as simple as hearing loss caused by playing drums without hearing protection (which there isn’t much to be done), it could also be an indicator of some other physical condition which you may not be aware of.
How Can You Prevent This Condition?
Hearing Protection: I cannot stress how important it is to protect your ears from loud sounds at all times. This is especially true if you are or have aspirations to be a professional musician. Much like a carpenter relies on his chisel, musicians relies on their ears as a tool of their profession. Therefore you should make protecting your ears a top priority.
Suggested Reading on Hearing Protection: If you’d like more info on how to protect your ears, I’ve collected my experience with various types of hearing protection for drummers and wrote an in-depth article about it. The article is geared towards solutions for kids, but the concepts (and most of the products) are also relevant for adults.
Pre-Gig Ritual: I get that at times it can seem socially awkward to stop and put ear plugs in right before taking the stage. It has definitely become more of the norm over the years, but I would try and make hearing protection part of the pre-gig ritual before every performance as your band mates should also be protecting their hearing at the gig. In-ear monitors are actually an awesome option as it kills two birds with one stone: hearing protection and high quality monitoring of the mix. The only downside, they are expensive.
Concert Seating: Be careful when you go to a concert that you’re not sitting right next to the speaker stack, as that is where it’ll be the loudest. Try sitting in the center of the venue, at a decent distance from the stage. Even a few rows of distance from the front can have a huge impact into the volume levels presented to your ears.
Watch Your Headphone Level: If you are wearing noise reducing headphones (the kind which isolate you from outside sounds but also have speakers built into them), be careful that you aren’t negating the purpose of these headphones by absolutely cranking the volume level of whatever tunes or metronome you have pumping through it.
Should I see a doctor for tinnitus?
If the ringing lasts more than a few days, or is accompanied by dizziness and hearing loss, it is probably best to seek medical attention, as that could be a sign of some more severe hearing loss or physical ailment. While there is no cure for tinnitus itself, the condition is often a sign of stress, which is something a medical professional may be able to help you with.
While my goal with this article is to be helpful, I am not a medical professional and therefore it does not constitute medical advice. You should consult your doctor about your particular situation.