The Most Annoying Sound In The World
Ear Injuries And How To Prevent Them
My left ear rings. All the time. I don’t notice it as much during the day because I’m busy with other things, but if I stop and listen, it’s there. It seems to be most obtrusive when I first wake up in the morning and when I’m trying to go to sleep at night. There are nights when I lie awake for hours, and have to use a tinnitus relief app on my iPhone to fall asleep. It’s a high-pitched noise I can’t shut out. I can’t make it stop.
The worst part is, it was preventable.
When I started shooting I used a few different kinds of ear pro. I tried disposable foamies, reusable flanged plugs, over the ear muffs, and custom molded plugs. None of them were a perfect solution. Foamies got old pretty quickly, and I always struggled to get a good seal on the flanged plugs, even after trying a few different brands. Ear muffs give me a headache, and living Phoenix, they were too hot to wear in the summer. Plus, getting a good cheek weld on my rifle and shotgun was a challenge.
For a long time, my preferred ear protection was a pair of custom molded plugs I purchased at the vendor tent at my first Area 2 match. They fit snuggly, had a good Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), and cost me around eighty bucks. I was happy to find something that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time adjusting until I got the right seal, and while they were more expensive than disposables, they seemed worth it. I used them at matches and while hunting, and all in all they functioned as advertised. The one downfall was their lack of amplification. If I wanted to have a conversation, I had to cock one plug partially out of my ear canal to allow me to hear other people talking. (See photos) At the time it seemed like just an inconvenience, but I would later learn how dangerous a practice it actually was.
Fast forward about a year later. I was hunting coyotes with my guide, Dustin, from Predator Technology Group. We hiked out and set a stand on the hill beside a gully. When you’re setting a stand, you have to be vewy vewy quiet (say it like Elmer Fudd!), so I cocked my left ear plug partially out of my ear so I could hear Dustin whispering where he was putting up the call and what my position should be. The call was about 35 yards away, and we were sitting about 20 yards apart.
I sat on my stool and adjusted my shooting stick, then mounted my rifle. Dustin got settled as well, and when I gave him the ready signal, he started the FoxPro. About 3 minutes in, this coyote came cruising up the gully towards the call. I kissed at him to get his attention and I broke the shot. He turned towards me, hopped a foot or so in the air and changed direction. So I broke a second shot. He sunk down past my line of sight into the gully, and I leapt off my stool in the hopes I’d see him down at the bottom.
But I had missed. Twice.
My head instantly snapped over in Dustin’s direction. I expected to see him laughing at my poor marksmanship and hear him ribbing me about missing the dog at that distance. That’s when I realized my left ear was ringing. Loud. Really Loud. He was saying something, but the ringing was so loud I couldn’t hear him. My left hand went straight up to my ear, and I made a startling revelation.
I hadn’t fully inserted my left ear plug after we set the stand. It was still cocked outward from when we were setting the stand. I had just fired two shots from my comped 3 gun rifle with no ear pro in my left ear.
The ringing persisted at that same level for about 2 days, and the ear ached like nothing I’d ever experienced. I went to an ear doctor and he said I’d injured my ear drum. He ran a bunch of tests, documented my hearing levels in both ears, prescribed prednisone to help reduce the swelling, and told me to come back in two weeks to retest my hearing. The prednisone did its job and the pain settled down, but the ringing never went away. I lost about 15% hearing in my left ear and live with a symptom called Subjective Tinnitus, which is the perception of noise where none actually exists.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been around gunfire without my ear pro in correctly. I had, time and time again, been chatting with another shooter while loading mags or waiting to paste and reset, and was caught off guard by the first few shots of an Open gun before I could shove my ear pro back into place. I always checked my ear pro during make ready to be sure they were in place before *I* shot, so I’d never actually fired a round, let alone two, without my ear pro until that day. And I know I’m not alone. I see people putting their muffs up on their hat while they’re resetting, and completely removing one or both sides of their plugs while walking from stage to stage. It was something I never really thought much about, until it was too late. I didn’t realize how quickly damage can actually occur until a doctor was lecturing me on protecting what hearing I had left. I was 35 years old and “huh?” became a more prolific response.
If I could go back and do it all over, I would most certainly use different criteria for choosing my ear protection. Settling for good enough wouldn’t be an option. Assuming that ear protection was a small investment wouldn’t be an option. After the co-pays and deductibles were paid, I’d have been better served by making an investment in my hearing from the get-go. But I can’t go back. So I needed to focus on protecting the hearing I had left, and ensuring I don’t do similar damage to my right side.
Choosing new ear pro was a challenge. Sifting through Noise Reduction Ratings, styles, and prices can be overwhelming. My ear pro was required to meet the following criteria:
It MUST be properly fit.
It MUST have electronic amplification.
Above all else it MUST be comfortable.
For starters, getting well-fit ear pro was paramount. The second most common cause of ear protection failure is improper fit. I decided to look only at inner ear protection, because muffs are just too hot in the summer, plus there’s the challenge of getting a good cheek weld on the rifle and shotgun for 3 gun. I needed to be able to insert my ear pro with a guarantee that would fit exactly where it should every time. If a plug didn’t obtain a good seal or allowed an air gap, I would not get the full value of its NRR as advertised.
Note: I should mention that while NNR’s are important, I don’t believe it to be the end-all-be-all characteristic in choosing ear pro. For me, proper fit and comfort are a greater indicator as to the level of noise reduction I’m able to take advantage of. An NRR of 22db, 26db, or 28db won’t matter if they don’t fit well enough to maximize their potential.
Second, electronic amplification was non-negotiable. It would allow me to engage with and hear those around me without removing or altering the position of my ear pro. This is a hobby sport and I enjoy interacting with other shooters. Talking through stage plans, discussing ways to improve, and giving each other a hard time is all part of the fun! I was forced to use electronic muffs for a short time while my ear was healing and realized what I had been missing. The first thing I noticed was how much it changed my experience at the range. I was able to hear so much more than before. As my ear healed and I went back to my old plugs during my search, I knew anything without amplification was off the table.
I also took into consideration the company’s reputation, their warranty, their support of the shooting sports, and the durability of the device (because I break things).
Last but not least, comfort was the most important characteristic in my decision-making process. The primary cause of ear protection failure is the end user. If they were not comfortable, I would be less likely to use them correctly, as was the case with my molded plugs. I wanted to be able to insert them easily and wear them all day without fiddling, adjusting, or thinking about them. The best ear protection in.the.world. won’t work if it’s hanging off a lanyard around your neck or up on your hat while you give your ears a break from discomfort.
In the end, I settled on a pair of custom molded Soundgear electronic ear protection from House of Hearing in St. George, UT. The fit was perfect and carried a 1 year warranty. Their NRR is +/- 25db. They have a 2 year warranty against defects. They are American-made using a Starkey chip, which is top of the line technology not offered by most of the other companies with similar products. And while Chris Bain, the owner of House of Hearing, is Board Certified in Hearing Instrument Sciences he’s also a competitive shooter! One of the ways he gives back to the shooting community is to offer Soundgear to the shooting community at a significant discount. The Silver model I use is about $300 less expensive than the next lowest price (and lesser quality) product out there. #NoBrainer
I had such a great experience with this company and their product that I offered to learn to make ear molds to help shooters who can’t make it to Utah get their hands on a set. I did my first set at Iron Sight Nationals in September for Jake Martens, Editor of USPSA’s Frontsight magazine! I might have forgotten to mention to him it was my first time making molds that would actually go into production… 😉 He was comfortably wearing his ear pro all day at the Western States Single Stack Championship last weekend so I must have done an okay job!
No matter what ear protection you choose to use, be certain it fits properly, you’re using it correctly, and use it the entire time every time you’re on the range. Don’t neglect to protect your hearing. I have a daily reminder of my poor decision. Don’t let the same thing happen to you.
Gun Racer & Gear Breaker
Facebook: Jessica Nietzel