Inside the cochlea (our hearing organ that sits deep inside our ears), there are thousands of sound-sensing cells called hair cells. These tiny cells are essential for hearing: they pick up sound waves and turn them into electrical signals that are sent to the brain and interpreted as sound.
Experts agree that hair cells can start to become damaged by noise at 85dB and above. That’s a problem when you consider that music at clubs and concerts is often around 110dB, and some headphones play music that’s just as loud when the volume is turned right up.
When you’re exposed to too much loud noise, the hair cells become overstimulated. Once this happens, they become fatigued and stop responding to sound. This can result in temporary hearing loss that you may recognise as dulled hearing – it can last from a few minutes to a few days. At first, after a break from loud noise, the hair cells recover. But if you continue listening to music that’s too loud, over time the hair cells may lose their ability to recover and die. The hearing loss becomes noticeable – and it’s permanent.
Research has shown that when hair cells are damaged, neurons (nerve cells in the brain) start searching for electrical signals that aren’t being received from the ear and may become hyperactive. It’s been suggested that this hyperactivity makes the brain more aware of the electrical ‘noise’ from the neurons, which is heard as tinnitus. Again, this can be temporary, but with continued exposure to loud music, it’s likely that the tinnitus will become permanent.