Approximately 40 million adults in the U.S. may suffer from a 100% preventable hearing condition – noise-induced hearing loss, according to the American Academy of Audiology.
In addition, approximately 30 million Americans experience tinnitus, the perception of noises within the ears or head without cause from an external sound. Although there is no cure for tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss, both are preventable with hearing protection.
To increase awareness of noise dangers and encourage hearing protection, the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology in the UTHSC College of Health Professions in collaboration with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville School of Music, created the Hearing Conservation Project, a program that provides educational messages and hearing screens to freshman students in the UTK School of Music.
“We wanted to provide early education to newly admitted students in the School of Music about the dangers of performing or listening to loud music and other loud noises, which can damage your hearing and cause tinnitus, with the goal that they may prevent it,” said Ashley Harkrider, PhD, professor and department chair of Audiology and Speech Pathology. “These students are often practicing music in small spaces with reverberation that can impact their hearing.”
With this goal, the team connected with Jeffrey Pappas, DMA, director of the UTK School of Music, and launched the project in 2018. Every year since its inception, the project’s team including, Dr. Harkrider; Julie Beeler, MA, program liaison in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology; James Lewis, PhD, associate professor; Donguk Lee, PhD student; and Patti Johnstone, PhD, retired professor; tests the hearing of freshman in the School of Music and discusses the students’ results, the mission of the project, and hearing protection.
Hearing protection helps decrease the intensity of loud sounds. Some forms of hearing protection include wearing earplugs, earmuffs, or custom hearing protection devices, turning down the volume when listening to anything through earbuds and headphones, or walking away from the noise.
“We found that there was a significant number of music students who had evidence of noise-induced hearing loss as they entered the School of Music,” said Dr. Harkrider.
Approximately 18% of incoming students in the UTK School of Music reported having tinnitus, 40% of incoming students have hearing levels consistent with noise-induced hearing loss, and only 10% of students reported using hearing protection. Their findings also suggest that since freshman students were tested early in their first semester, the noise-induced hearing loss may have appeared during their childhood and adolescent years.
“There is also something called temporary threshold shift, which we have all experienced after attending a concert and hearing our ears ringing, but that goes away within 24 to 48 hours,” Dr. Harkrider said. “However, if you continue to have that happen consistently, that’s when the result becomes permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus.”
After the screenings, the team also offered additional hearing evaluations to further discuss hearing protection, but after noticing a decrease in student engagement, they decided to pursue a creative pathway to reach students.
The department collaborated with UTK’s College of Architecture and Design to create two compelling videos on noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus titled, “Pause, Protect, Play.”
“We reached out and worked with Professor Sarah Lowe in the UTK College of Architecture and Design. She leads a team-based learning class on graphic design that selects an external group to create a project for the semester. They selected the hearing conservation project, and our goal was to inform her group about noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus, so they could help us create videos that would be engaging and eye-catching to students and young adults,” Dr. Harkrider said.
Collectively, they created two videos on noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus, available on their website, to further encourage students to protect their hearing and participate in three steps, Pause, Protect, Play.
“Our data shows that we need to reach young people before they arrive at college,” Dr. Harkrider said. “And we need our health care partners to share this information and make it a priority to discuss with their pediatric patients and families to ensure they understand the risks of loud sounds.”
The hearing conservation project is funded by the Dave Lipscomb Hearing Conservation Fund, created by Denise Descouzis, an alumna of the Audiology and Speech Pathology program, in honor of Lipscomb’s research and efforts in hearing conservation.
In the future, the team aims to expand the project’s reach to all students at the university and in local high schools.