What if I told you there was a certain injury to which hunters and firearm shooters were routinely exposed? An injury almost 100 percent guaranteed to permanently damage your body, but that you could easily prevent?
“Huh? What’s that you said?”
If you’ve ever been around a group of old hunters, you’ll find they share one thing in common: they’re almost all deaf to some degree or another. That’s because most hunters and shooters (especially those who have been doing it for years) and many armed forces veterans as well, suffer from a certain degree of hearing loss caused by firing guns.
Myself, I initially damaged my hearing as a youth firing guns without wearing ear protection; in particular my left ear suffered significant hearing loss in the higher frequencies. Why the left ear? Since I shoot right-handed my left ear was more exposed to the muzzle blast while my right ear was somewhat protected from the blast by being turned away from the muzzle. Sight down the barrel of an imaginary gun and look where your ears are in relationship to the muzzle blast; for left-handed shooters their right ears are the most damaged.
A tour in Iraq and some related ear infections didn’t help matters, and now both of my ears are damaged and I suffer from tinnitus – a permanent ringing in my ears. Imagine listening to the singing of dog-day cicadas every day and every night, all of the time, every day of your life. That’s tinnitus. Tinnitus means having to fall asleep with some sort of background noise like a television or a fan on to drown out the constant ringing.
With shooting-related hearing damage audiologists say you’ll probably experience three different things:
One, you can’t hear certain sounds very well, mainly high frequencies, and may have trouble understanding women or children (even more so than usual) to the point that routine tasks and interactions such as ordering a sandwich becomes an exercise in frustration. The television gets turned up a little bit louder and certain cell phone ring tones and chimes are ineffective. You may be considered a little aloof and antisocial.
Second, you’ll notice the tinnitus or constant ringing in the ears mentioned earlier.
Finally you may experience a hearing loss-related condition called “recruitment,” which refers to an altered perception of sound where even small increases in volume are greatly exaggerated.
For instance noises like sirens may be doubly annoying or painful; that’s because your remaining ear nerves try to pick up the slack for the damaged ones and over-compensate. This is why, when the fire trucks go by in the Fourth of July parade, the noise is actually painful and you wonder why everyone else isn’t grimacing in pain with their hands over their ears. I think the over-compensation works in other ways as well; like the ability to hear some small noises over other noises – sort of reminiscent of your dog’s ability to hear the sound of the treat bag being opened from a mile away. So a small, out-of-place sound that other people don’t notice will really get your attention and you’ll drive people crazy asking “What’s that sound? Can you hear that?”
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Hearing loss is the single most preventable injury suffered by hunters and shooters, and one of the best gifts I ever received as a young man was from my oldest brother, an audiologist by profession, who gave me a hearing exam, a pair of ear muffs and a case of ear plugs – along with a lecture about nerve damage in my ears and how it is irreversible. That uncomfortable ringing you get right after shooting, especially a large handgun – if you were silly enough to fire it without hearing protection – that might as well be the sound of your nerve endings dying.
Ever since then, I have always tried to wear hearing protection doing any loud activity (think mowing), even when hunting, whenever possible, and I try to avoid shooting things are particularly painfully loud.
If you are a shooter or hunter, do yourself and your ears a favor, and invest in some nice shooting muffs and ear plugs and then actually use them. I even double-up when I can, wearing ear muff over my ear plugs. It’s cheap, effective protection and you’ll probably even find that you enjoy shooting a lot more when your ears don’t ring for hours afterwards. An audiologist can tell you fairly quickly to what extent your hearing is already damaged. I also suggest you get invest in some eye protection as well.
If you are the parent of a young hunter or shooter, definitely make sure your little guy or girl wears hearing and eye protection every single time they are shooting, and furthermore set the right example by wearing your hearing protection as well. When you are young you don’t necessarily think about how the decisions you make today will affect you later on in life, and shooting without hearing protection absolutely damages your hearing. You protect them from other things, protect them from this.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and a long-time contributor to the Sunday Times-Sentinel. His column, In the Open, generally appears every other weekend. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org