If ever there was an epidemic in the hunting community, it’d be hearing loss. When target practice is a way of life, it’s easy to become blasé about earmuffs. When that buck is about to get over the ridge, jamming in ear plugs is the last of our worries. For those reasons, most of us will go through the rest of our lives unable to hear pheasants cackle and elk bugle as well as we should.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can take steps now to stem the loss of auditory ability with simple, cheap solutions or technologically advanced ones.
Dr. Grace Sturdivant is an evangelist for saving hunters’ eardrums. Starting her career as a Vanderbilt-trained Doctor of Audiology, she spent years researching, diagnosing, and treating hearing loss. Eventually, however, she decided to take a more proactive approach.
“I've shifted from the traditional academic medical setting practice,” Sturdivant told MeatEater. “I want to prevent and delay the problems that I spent so many years treating in people who were debilitated by this problem that was largely preventable. And they acquired this problem by doing these worthwhile things that they love.”
Raised in a Mississippian hunting family, she wasn’t about to tell shooters to stop shooting: “I want you to continue doing what you're doing. I just want to give you some tools to do it safer.”
That desire led to the founding of her company, OtoPro Technologies. Through this business, Sturdivant advocates for ear protection while serving as a consultant for shooters, musicians, pilots, builders, machine operators, and others who deal in loud noises for work or pleasure.
“I love music. I don't want tell people ‘Don't go stand front and center at your favorite show.’ Go do it. But let me give you some really cool specially filtered, small, tiny earplugs so you can take the edge off and your ears won't be ringing all night,” she said. “That's the whole mission. Even if it comes down to me just educating you on how to wear the foam ear plugs correctly, that’s cool.”
Sturdivant cites a University of Wisconsin study that found men aged 48 to 92 who hunted regularly were more likely to experience high-frequency hearing loss, a risk that increased 7% for every five years a man had been hunting. Of the participants surveyed, 38% of recreational shooters and 95% said they never wore hearing protection while shooting in the last year.
Another more recent study found that the usage of hearing protection while shooting has increased in recent years, but auditory loss is still a big problem. Still, there are plenty of factors to consider in order to mitigate.
“High-intensity impulse sounds will permanently damage delicate cochlear structures, and thus individuals who shoot firearms are at a higher risk of bilateral, high-frequency, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) than peer groups who do not shoot,” the study’s authors wrote. “In this article, we describe several factors that influence the risk of NIHL, including the use of a muzzle brake, the number of shots fired, the distance between shooters, the shooting environment, the choice of ammunition, the use of a suppressor, and hearing protection fit and use.”
But what’s really happening when we pull the trigger that makes our ears hurt and function poorly as a result?
“When you think about decibels, think about them in terms of sound pressure level, which is exactly what a decibel is,” Sturdivant said. “And with a gunshot you're typically at around 150 decibels sound pressure level. And when that amount of sound pressure hits your hearing nerve, it's hitting those hair fibers that are just these tiny, delicate hair fibers that send the sound to the brain. It's hitting them really hard and really fast, like an impulse impact. And so the amount that those hair cells are able to withstand instantly from a 150 decibel sound pressure level is not very much. So, oftentimes, you'll see instant damage or at least instant weakening at that level.”
In contrast, she said, you could withstand a lower decibel level for much longer. But even an 80-decibel noise for a long duration will weaken those microscopic hair fibers in your ears. Those organs can recover and regenerate, but you need to allow them time to do so after exposure to loud noises. If you let the problem go on long enough, however, you may be faced with even worse issues.
“Of course, not only the communication difficulties and just the frustration of not being able to hear; there's really more to it than that,” Sturdivant said. “And a large reason why I started this business was because of all the connections that we see in the area of cognitive decline and dementia with hearing loss. Because we actually hear with our brains and when those hair cells are able to send the signal in a healthy way to the brain to be processed, it's stimulating some very specific areas of the brain. And when those areas are not stimulated, we see an earlier onset and a faster rate of cognitive decline with various forms of dementia.”
Sturdivant said that most people wait seven to 10 years to do anything about their hearing loss. That can allow cognitive decline to take hold sooner than it would otherwise. Like with most medicine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Hearing protection technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, especially from military contractors and European firms. While there are many great offerings in the consumer hunting market already, there’s a lot more ultra-modern tech you probably haven’t even heard about yet. Sturdivant stays highly up to date on all the bleeding-edge ear care gadgets available worldwide.
One of the biggest developments recently becoming widely available to consumers is simple and affordable custom fittings.
“Custom is very important because we want a tight air seal of your ear,” she said. “If there's any air leakage, sound waves are passing through.”
It’s also a major boon if, say, you got punched in the head in high school or otherwise damaged your ear canals in sports or accidents—placing you among the minority in regard to one-size-fits-most ear plugs.
Some new offerings also allow air passage to help defeat that pressurized-airplane-cabin, stuffed-up feeling you get from air-tight ear plugs.
“There's lots of passive filters for hunting and shooting. This is awesome because it allows the most in and it allows some air exchange. When you first wear it, you wonder like, is this really fitting my ear? Because I can feel air, which is strange. But that's the whole point,” Sturdivant said. “There’s a sound pressure membrane that vibrates to let the sound pass through and then it stiffens up at 95-decibel sound pressure level. So, it's an all-or-nothing filter.”
For hunters who may have already beat the hell out of their eardrums, a favorite feature is ambient microphones built into the earplugs that amplify the surrounding noise, making you still able (or even more able) to hear a buck snort or goose wings whoosh. At the gun range, that means you don’t need to take off your headphones and yank out your ear plugs between each target session in order to register what your friends are hollering at you. Ambient noise will sound practically normal, but the plugs immediately block out the concussion of a gun blast.
Some of the higher-end models offer Bluetooth streaming capability, so you can play your favorite podcast while plinking at targets or running the circular saw. Some of these also offer wind noise reduction features, or the ability to adjust the volume level for both ears individually. There are solutions for every situation and budget, from OtoPro’s new proprietary, universal passive filter ear plugs to $300 custom rigs.
Or course, none of this is meant to say that you can’t protect your ears well with items you likely already own (or could acquire painlessly). Sturdivant says that the cheap foam ear plugs still make a big difference, so long as they’re inserted correctly. Pinch and roll the tip up tightly then push it in far enough that none of the material is extending outside your ears, creating an air-tight seal against sound. Pair that with an affordable pair of Caldwell earmuffs and you’re a long ways toward saving your ears for later in life.
Sturdivant said that she is seeing a tide change in the way hunters view protecting themselves and others. Folks over 60 tend to think the damage is done, she said, but younger generations—those that grew up with mandatory seatbelt laws, for example—are beginning to be more proactive and invest in preventative measures. That may be the most true for parents introducing their kids to hunting and shooting. If you start young enough with good ear protection, there’s no reason why a person should ever lose their auditory abilities. Sturdivant hopes to keep that trend growing and encourages every hunter and shooter to share the same message with their family and friends.
“My job is to motivate you, to protect your hearing. Your job is to become damned and determined to be like, ‘I'm going to get over this hump and this is going to become my new normal.’ And then it becomes second nature,” she concluded. “Hearing protection just needs to be another piece of essential hunter safety gear.”