Contributed by Joy Victory, managing editor, Healthy Hearing
There is no denying that exercise is beneficial to the body and mind. But if a bustling gym is your favorite place to work out, be careful — heavy exertion paired with loud music can lead to hearing loss or tinnitus. While it’s an unusual cause of hearing loss, it’s also not unheard of.
Weightlifting and hearing damage
Why do my ears get clogged or plugged up when I exercise?
Heavy exertion, such as straining while lifting weights, causes intracranial pressure (pressure within the brain), which in turn leads to pressure within the ears. If you also hold your breath while lifting, you add even more pressure in the inner ear. This is not unlike the pressure change you experience on an airplane.
How to prevent it: Clear your ears beforehand (by yawning, etc). Don’t lift too heavy and never hold your breath. If you’re working out with a cold, you may want to take a decongestant, as well.
Got ringing in the ears after exercise?
The increased pressure in the inner ear during or after intense exercise can lead to a perilymphatic fistula (PLF), which occurs unexpectedly and most people aren’t aware of right away. Simply put, a PLF is a small tear or defect in the thin membrane between the inner ear and the middle ear. The tear itself can be caused by the pressure in the inner ear due to straining; Hearing changes occur when the strain of subsequent workouts causes fluid from the inner ear to leak through the tear and into the middle ear.
Symptoms include tinnitus, ear fullness, dizziness and sometimes sensitivity to normal noises.
Smashing of weights akin to ‘shotgun blast’
Weight rooms are noisy places, particularly if weightlifters aren’t mindful about careful stacking of weights. “I never actually took a sound level meter to the smashing of weights in a weight room, but it is likely that even short durations of loud intense weights dropping, can have the same potential damage to hearing as a shotgun blast or an airbag deploying,” said Rachel Raphael, M.A., CCC-A, an audiologist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and a certified group fitness instructor.
If you’re lifting weights and someone suddenly drops heavy weights right by your ear, you risk permanent hearing loss and the onset of tinnitus. Gyms can help by providing padded flooring, and asking members to follow rules about proper ways to use weights.
Loud music is an added burden on ears
To get athletes motivated for intense workouts, gyms often crank up the tunes to an ear-splitting level, sometimes well over 90-100 decibels (dB). When you combine loud music with noise coming from stationary bikes, elliptical trainers and treadmills or the crashing of heavy weights, you have the perfect recipe for irreversible noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus.
How do you know if the music is too loud? A good clue is if you leave your Zumba class or gym workout with ringing ears and muffled hearing, which means you have likely damaged the delicate hair cells in your inner ear. While your hearing may recover in the short-term, over time your ears are less likely to heal, predisposing you to hearing loss. Although most trainers and gyms have little appetite for turning down the music, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Sometimes, just a polite request can spark awareness that will benefit everyone in the gym. If that fails, bring along a set of earplugs. You’ll still be able to hear your favorite tunes and the instructions of the trainer but at a safer volume.
Dos and don’ts for healthy hearing during exercise
No matter what form of exercise you choose, here are some dos and don’ts to ensure you are taking care of your hearing while working out.
- Do get a hearing check immediately if you experience any change in hearing during or after exercise.
- Do reduce the weight you’re lifting to reduce strain. Reducing the strain could possibly prevent a PLF from occurring.
- Do protect your hearing in the gym. Wear earplugs to safeguard against loud music or keep headphones at a reasonable volume to avoid noise-induced hearing loss.
- Don’t hold your breath to get that extra boost of strength, as holding your breath increases the pressure within the ears.
- Don’t strain during weight lifting.
- Don’t participate in sports which can result in blows to the head, such as boxing or wrestling, if you are experiencing changes in your hearing.
- Don’t bang or drop the weights when lifting. That sudden noise can reach a level as high as 140 decibels, which is like being exposed to a gunshot or explosion.
- Don’t ignore symptoms of hearing loss.
When to seek help
Don’t shy away from efforts to get fit and healthy, just be aware of the dangers to your hearing health at the same time. If you experience feelings of fullness in the ears, muffled hearing, tinnitus or dizziness after intense exercise, get help right away. Our directory provides hearing specialists and audiologists near you who can assess the damage and recommend next steps to take.