Even beautiful music may pose hearing-loss risk to pros

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Whether playing in a symphony orchestra or a rock concert, professional musicians may have almost four times the risk of hearing loss as their audience does, according to a new study.

The audience attends a concert by Capital Inicial at the Rock in Rio Music Festival in Rio de Janeiro September 14, 2013. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Based on medical records, German researchers found the workplace hazard of hearing damage for musicians, conductors and others in involved in musical performance is significant enough to warrant protective measures.

“I have heard many, many famous musicians say that they would give back all of their success if the ringing in the ears and hearing loss would improve,” said Rick Friedman, a professor of otolaryngology and neurosurgery at the USC Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

Hearing-related complaints are common among the many musicians he sees in the clinic, Friedman, who was not involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.

Tania Schink at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology-BIPS in Bremen, and her colleagues looked at data from three German insurance agencies to compare diagnosed hearing problems among musicians and the general population.

Of the more than 3.3 million people ages 18 to 66 insured by the companies between 2004 and 2008, more than 2,000 were identified as professional musicians by federal employment data.

Of the 2,227 musicians in the study, 238 had some type of hearing loss. Their issues included hearing loss caused by noise, ringing in the ears and hearing difficulties due to problems in the inner ear or in the brain.

About 280,000 of the 3.3 million non-musicians also suffered from a loss of hearing.

Overall, the musicians were 1.45 times as likely as non-musicians to have any type of hearing problem. But they were 3.6 times more likely to have noise-induced hearing loss, which was also the most common problem they reported.

Schink’s team writes in the British medical journal BMJ that noise-induced hearing loss – which is the kind also suffered by workers in heavy industry or other jobs that regularly expose people to high decibel levels – is influenced by several factors.

For musicians, these include the number of years of exposure, whether they play amplified instruments and for orchestra musicians, their position in the orchestra relative to other players.

“Given the number of professional musicians and the severity of the outcome, leading to occupational disability and severe loss of quality of life, hearing loss in professional musicians is of high public health importance,” they write.

“Our data provide evidence of the need for prevention measures,” such as special ear plugs and sound-protecting shields between the sections of an orchestra, they add.

Hearing loss can affect recreational musicians as well, Friedman points out. Even attending a loud concert or listening to music full-blast with headphones on can cause damage, he said.

“Research has shown that teenagers are starting to show signs of hearing loss due to loud music, whether (from) devices or concerts,” he said.

Ringing in the ears after loud noise is a bad sign, he said. But even after hearing goes back to normal, hearing loss - which first affects higher-pitched sound - can continue to progress.

“The damage may be silent. It accumulates over time as the (nerve or brain cells) die,” Friedman said.

For people concerned about protecting their hearing, musician-grade earplugs are a good place to start, Friedman said. They preserve sound quality but lower its intensity.

These preventive measures should be taken starting early on, when the exposure to loud music begins, he adds. That’s a point that is sometimes difficult to drive home among young music enthusiasts.

“The problem is when people are young, they feel like they are invincible,” Friedman said. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.

“Playing loud music consistently without any hearing protection is basically a death sentence for the ear,” he said.

SOURCE: BMJ online April 30, 2014.