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Loud noise affects hearing loss differently

April 24, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Dr. Rick Friedman with the House Ear Institute is trying to understand why loud noises affect people differently. So they're studying mice because how noise affects mice ears is very close to what happens in human ears.

"We know that there's a genetic component to noise-induced hearing loss. There are people who have been exposed to terrible noise levels who don't have hearing loss or tinnitus at all. There are others who get it out of proportion to the average," said Friedman.

Ear-ringing, or tinnitus, is one of the first signs of hearing loss. Dr. Friedman says the theory is that loud noises damage nerve fibers responsible for hearing. The brain goes into overdrive trying to make up for this loss. It's like a "phantom limb": the brain thinks it's there even though the nerves are lost. So tinnitus may be the brain making up for lost hearing.

"Hearing aids seem to be the best thing in the world for tinnitus," said Friedman. "Unfortunately some patients, they don't have enough hearing loss to warrant hearing aids, so they're in a tough position.

"It's hard to treat noise-induced hearing loss. Prevention is really the treatment," said Friedman.

Prescription custom earplugs can suppress a lot of noise or a little as necessary.