Sometimes I feel like I walk around with my fingers in my ears all the time. If it’s not the rat-tat-tat of jackhammers, the blaring sirens on a police car, or the beep-beep-beep of a truck that is backing up, it is the air brakes on the crosstown bus. Given my relatively strong high-pitched hearing, the sound of air brakes is the worst. Very painful.
Most of the time I don’t care about the stares that I get. Sometimes, although rarely, a passerby will plug his ears in solidarity. We usually exchange a smile and an eye roll as we wonder how things have gotten so loud!
One time when I was on my way to meet some hearing research scientists for lunch, there was a group of workers jackhammering right outside the restaurant where we were meeting. They chuckled as they saw me approach with my fingers sticking firmly into my ears. At least I practice what I preach, we all laughed!
But sometimes, it is awkward to visibly plug your ears — like when you are at your child’s school music concert and the sound of the trumpet is blasting in your brain. The other parents might not appreciate your physical disapproval of their children’s musical efforts. In this situation, I will often try to block the ear that is closest, perhaps with a subtle head tilt towards an upraised hand. Of course I could always turn my hearing aids down, but then I would miss the notes from my own offspring. Thank goodness he plays the cello, an instrument in the lower sound register!
Plugging your ears with your fingers can look a bit funny, but protecting your hearing is not a laughing matter. In some of the cases described above, my hearing was probably not at real risk, but my sensitivity to loud sounds, especially high-pitched sounds, makes it painful for me, nonetheless.
Severe sound sensitivity is a serious condition called hyperacusis which is when everyday sounds like water running or a fan blowing are perceived as painfully loud. It can be extremely debilitating and is often associated with Meniere’s disease. My sound sensitivity is quite tame in comparison, however, exposure to loud sounds can trigger my tinnitus — something I want to avoid at all costs.
So what can a hard-of-hearing but sensitive-to-loud-sounds person do about this?
1. Always carry earplugs, even if you don’t think you will need them. Some come with handy carrying cases, others with decorations, while the simple type from the drug store can be carried easily in a Ziplock bag. And don’t be afraid to use them.
2. Get proficient with the volume control settings on your hearing aids. The faster you can make adjustments, the quicker you will have protection and the more agile you will be at turning the volume back up when the disturbing noise ends.
3. Don’t be shy about using your fingers. In a pinch, blocking the noise with your fingers or hands is a good option. Other simple methods of protecting your hearing include moving away from the noise and lowering the volume, if you can.
4. Perfect your incognito blocking maneuver for those sticky situations where you might not want to be seen plugging your ears — assuming the noise is at a safe level, of course. Your friends and family will thank you for your subtlety.
Readers, do you plug your ears with your fingers to block uncomfortable sounds?