Tips for Taming Tinnitus and Better Shop Hearing Protection

Tinnitus is a common affliction affecting millions of Americans. "Tinnitus is the perception of a sound that is not present in our environment," explained Dr. Brooke Lewandowski, Au.D. CCC-A, of Medical College of Wisconsin-Audiology at HEAR Wisconsin. "This sound can vary from person to person. Most commonly people report a high pitched ringing, but patients also report humming, hissing, static, etc. Over 50 million people in America report having tinnitus. The majority of these people are not bothered by it and it does not adversely affect any aspect of their daily life. However, there are a small percentage of people who are bothered or extremely bothered by their tinnitus, which can cause problems with their ability to sleep, concentrate, relax and communicate."

Hearing loss is the most common cause of tinnitus, and while both hearing loss and tinnitus can occur at any age, tinnitus is seen more often in adults above the age of 50, and those who work or play in loud environments are more susceptible.

"Noise induced hearing loss and continued exposure to loud noise can lead to tinnitus," said Dr. Lewandowski. "Some professions at risk are factory workers, military or anything that requires a constant exposure to loud noise.

"There is no cure for tinnitus. The main way that we treat tinnitus is through sound therapy. One of the great things about sound therapy today is that it is very cost effective. Once a person is taught how to do it they can create their own sound therapy for free through apps on their smartphone, MP3 players and noise machines."

A variety of bedside sound therapy systems are available through online retailers like Harris Communications. These systems include Sound Oasis and Marpac Dohm sound therapy machines. The hearing loss experts at Harris Communications can help customers select the best sound therapy system for their needs.

"Sound therapy is simply introducing soothing sounds to a patient," Lewandowski explained. "These sounds will vary from person to person. A soothing sound is anything that a person finds calming or relaxing. For one person it could be the sound of crickets or insects, but for another person it could be the sound of the ocean or a thunderstorm. It is important that these sounds not be distracting (i.e., TV, radio, music). We want sounds that a person can tune out while going about their daily life. We do not want a person to play sound so loud that they `mask' out their tinnitus. This can actually have an adverse effect causing reactive tinnitus, where the masker actually causes the tinnitus to ramp up and become louder than it was before."

Troy Anderson, Co-Founder of Sound Oasis, a sound therapy system manufacturer, has been working with doctors for years to develop a burgeoning library of soothing sounds for its bedside sound therapy systems, sound therapy pillows and mobile apps. "Tinnitus gets worse at night," Anderson said. "At night your bedroom gets very quiet, but your tinnitus does not go away. Your perceived sound gets worse. So a bedside sound therapy system can be very effective at helping you get a better night's sleep.

"We have worked with doctors to develop the widest range of sounds in the business. We have dozens of sounds including waterfalls, waves, distant thunderstorms and music sounds that are infused with different frequencies. Everyone has their own frequency level of tinnitus. Each person is unique. You can try different sounds until you find the one that works best for you."

"One of the most common factors that can ramp up a person's perception of their tinnitus is stress," Lewandowski said. "We can see a person who has had non-bothersome tinnitus for many years but then has it peak after a very stressful event occurs in their life. For most patients we not only address the tinnitus, but also the stress in their life that is causing the tinnitus to become more bothersome."

"Running a busy machine shop or fab shop is stressful by its very nature. There are orders to fill, deadlines to meet, specs to keep and extraordinarily expensive material that you cannot afford to scrap out. Having the right machines and taking proper care of them can go a long way to alleviating shop stress," said Ben Callahan, North Central Regional Sales Manager for Jet Edge, Inc., a Minnesota-based waterjet systems manufacturer.

A mainstay in any well-equipped machine or fab shop, precision waterjet cutting systems are amazing machines that cut precise parts from virtually any material, from soft foam rubber to 14" titanium parts. But like any machine tool, they can be loud at times.

Callahan, who has worked in the waterjet industry for years, offered a few easy suggestions to quiet down a waterjet.

"Cutting under water is the biggest way to reduce the noise of the cutting operation of the water jet," Callahan said. "If you do not cut under water, then keep the water level up to the top of the slates. This will keep the amount of jet exposed to the air down to a minimum. Also, look into adding sound proofing foam to the pump.

"Other solutions include moving the waterjet pump to a separate room or installing acoustical ceiling tiles to dampen the noise. Waterjet operators should never get lax on wearing personal protective gear. The waterjet is a constant sound that does not seem loud or damaging, but over time it can affect your hearing. Decibels are the greatest during pierces and usually happen multiple times during a program, so ear protection should be worn at all times.

"To ensure hearing is safe during especially loud water blasting projects, double up on hearing protection by wearing earplugs and earmuffs. Operators should also wear protective footwear and eye protection at all times when in the shop."

One of the biggest conundrums of hearing protection is that standard shop earplugs and earmuffs muffle all sounds, including ones the operator needs to hear, such as a critical machine alert. New hearing protection is available that is designed to meet such needs.

SPERIAN Impact 707 Electronic Over-the-Head Earmuffs exclude sounds above 82 dB and amplify sounds below that limit, making them ideal for individuals with hearing loss and those in noisy environments.

There also is the option of custom earplugs, Lewandowski said. "With custom earplugs a licensed audiologist will take an impression of your ear and send it out to a manufacturer to have custom hearing protection made. You are able to add different attenuator levels to the custom ear molds to help suppress the background noise while still being able to communicate with others."

To be effective, earplugs must be worn correctly. "The main thing to remember when inserting earplugs is that you want the plug to go as deep in the ear as possible," Lewandowski said. "Before inserting the earplug, roll it between your fingers and make it as small as possible. Then insert the plug as deep in your ear as possible and let it expand. Some earplugs come with two colors. If you can still see both colors after insertion the earplug is not in deep enough. As long as the disposable earplug is kept in a sanitary container earplugs can be reused, but only for a couple uses, because they can lose their elasticity and effectiveness."

At Jet Edge, hearing and eye protection are taken very seriously, said Jaimie Larson, Jet Edge Marketing Manager. "All of our employees are required to attend safety training once a year and must wear hearing and eye protection in the shop," she said. "Jet Edge customers receive free training for the life of their machine and safety training is the first training topic on day one."