by Dr. Mike Coley

I love motorcycles. I began riding at about age eleven and was reading about them before that. And like most everyone else I gave little consideration to what the noise associated with riding might be doing to my hearing or what I might be able to do about it. As I got older (that is I got my driver’s license) I found myself gravitating toward more road riding. And with more years came more and more road riding, including long distance touring instead of the dirt riding I‘d been doing as a kid. I continued to read just about every publication printed about bikes, but I spent more and more time reading about touring and road riding, and just how to do this better, and safer.

In my mid-twenties I decided that helmets were actually a good idea and started using one routinely, but hearing protection was only something I had read about. But as my riding began to include more and more time on highways I decided to try using ear plugs. I grew-up believing that a good rider needs to be able to hear the engine, and the surrounding traffic. And I must admit that the first time I tried ear plugs I was not overly impressed. They were the wax variety which were effective in blocking the noise, but not very comfortable to wear. But as I got used to them the more I wanted to use them. I found myself feeling less tired at the end of a long ride, and the truth is at highway speeds about the only thing I was hearing was the wind anyway.

Ear plugs became a routine part of my riding gear for any type of riding other than that done in town. I thought then, and still do now, that in town I want to hear everything going on around me-my engine, car tires, car engines, sirens, etc. I also stumbled across a type of foam plug that worked as well as the wax ones in reducing noise, but was much more convenient to insert and more comfortable to wear. A type that I still use to this day.

Over the next few years in addition to reading about and riding motorcycles, I was reading about and learning how to become an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. It was during my medical training and subsequent years in practice that I became aware of just how easy it is to damage our hearing. And unfortunately, damage that is noise induced is usually permanent and can only be treated by the use of hearing aids.

The actual hearing apparatus of the ear looks like a snail’s shell, and is found inside the skull in what‘s called the inner ear along with our balance apparatus. Inside of this snail’s shell (cochlea) are millions of cells with what look like tiny hairs sticking out of them. It is the hair cells that become damaged with noise exposure. The most frequent kind of noise induced damage is that which occurs over a long period of time, like factory work. All of us know people that have had exposure to noise and have trouble hearing. The progression of this kind of hearing loss is usually very, very slow, and with the high pitches being affected first. Initially, this is so mild and in frequencies that we seldom use, that the individual his/herself is unaware they are having a problem. But with continued exposure more and more of the hair cells become damaged and the hearing loss worsens and creeps into lower frequencies. This usually manifests as trouble understanding conversation if there is any significant background noise, like at a party or in a crowd of people. Often watching TV is a problem. Either they need the TV much louder than other family members would like, or they have trouble understanding what’s being said. The person knows people are talking, but just can’t quite make out the words. They also do better when they are talking one-on-one, or with people with deeper voices.

Now how does all this tie into riding motorcycles? Well, we all know that there is a lot of wind noise when we ride at speeds of about fifty miles per hour or more. And for those of us who ride with little or no fairing or windshield this noise can be pretty loud. Exposure to this degree of noise will cause damage to those hair cells that are located in the hearing portion of our ears. This is not a “maybe will cause“, but is a “it will cause“ situation. How much damage and how long before enough damage is done before we notice is unpredictable. Some people are much more susceptible than others and may sustain damage much, much sooner than someone else exposed to the same conditions. And this is where ear plugs will help. I’ve focused on wind noise, but any relatively loud noise will do the same thing-loud exhaust systems, hammering, power tools, lawn mowers (yes including the new quiet ones), weed eaters, and on and on.

The use of ear plugs will certainly lower the volume of the noise you are exposed to, but surprisingly will aid your hearing to some degree at freeway speeds. The frequency (pitch) of the wind noise is very effectively muted while lower frequencies much less so. Now don’t get me wrong, you’re not going to put in ear plugs and go out for a ride and find no wind noise, but the wonderful mechanical and exhaust sounds unaffected. But, what you will find is that you’ll still be able to hear the engine well enough to gauge engine speed or telltale signs of a problem. You’ll also be surprised just how tiring the wind noise had been and how much less fatigue there will be after a ride.

I routinely ride with a half dozen other people who rarely if ever used ear plugs until I started riding with them. Five of the six now routinely use them, and the sixth does when he thinks about it. Each of my friends already has some degree of hearing loss and each thought what difference will wearing ear plugs make if I already have trouble hearing. Beside being less tired at the end of a ride, by using plugs they are protecting what hearing they have left. The damage that has already been done is permanent, but if a person does not protect what hearing they have, further damage will occur. Whatever loss you presently have will worsen if you continue to subject yourself to loud noise.

I’m frequently asked what style or brand of ear plug is the best, and how much do they cost. Effective plugs will cost as little as about $1.50 per pair, or as much as $100.00 for custom made versions. For years now I’ve used EAR brand foam ear plugs. These are the yellow foam barrel shaped ones that you roll between your fingers to compress them and then insert into your ear canal. In a few seconds they expand to fill the canal. I’ve found these to be cheap (in the $1.50 per pair range), reusable, comfortable, and effective. There are literally dozens of different types, so my suggestion is to try a pair of your choosing and if they are not what you want, try a different kind. My friends all use slightly different type. Five friends, five different types of plugs. The secret is not so much what type or brand, but rather their routine use.

Whether or not a rider chooses to use ear plugs is obviously a personal decision. But as a long time rider whose owned some forty or fifty motorcycles over the years (including: Ducati, Harley-Davidson, BMW, British Iron, and all brands Japanese); and as a physician specializing in diseases and treatment of the ear, I strongly recommend their use.

Your hearing is like your eyesight, protect what you’ve got because you only get one pair.

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