'Huh?’ 6 signs you may need help for hearing loss

Minimize noise-related damage with prevention and early intervention


By Dr. Hope Lanter

As a police officer, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can have a devastating effect on your career, your ability to perform at your best and even your personal safety on the job – not to mention your life off the clock. 

Over one-third of police personnel suffer some degree of NIHL – more than twice the rate of the general population. And it’s more prevalent among those who have been on the force more than 15 years, and more common among female officers than male.

Of course, when you consider a day in the life of a police officer, it’s not surprising hearing loss would be a problem for so many. Nearly every part of the job involves noise exposure. Whether it’s the incessant traffic noise and honking horns, the wail of sirens during a pursuit, the constant screeching of radio communications, barking K-9 units or explosive sounds like gunfire or flashbangs – it all adds up over time.

In fact, while many people think NIHL is caused by exposure to loud noises, the truth is it’s not just the volume that matters. The duration and intensity of exposure, even at relatively comfortable noise levels, can have a profound effect on hearing acuity.

AN OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD

Unfortunately for law enforcement personnel, noise exposure is nearly unavoidable. Where construction workers and machine operators can easily wear hearing protection on the job, for a cop, that’s just not practical, aside from range practice in a controlled environment.

It’s essential for officers to have unencumbered hearing to remain acutely aware of all their surroundings, whether that’s a suspect creeping around the corner or a passing vehicle coming dangerously close during a routine traffic stop. But those same situations that make hearing protection impractical also make hearing loss extremely dangerous.

Aside from the risk to your personal safety, the inability to hear well can also negatively affect investigations. If you’re unable to hear a witness or suspect during an interrogation, you could miss critical details – either spoken language or body language – that jeopardize evidence gathering.

[RELATED: Firearms training and prevention of hearing loss]

In most cases, NIHL comes on gradually, so it’s easy to overlook or fail to recognize the signs and symptoms. In fact, it’s more likely that others, including your loved ones, coworkers or your partner, will notice the problem because of your behaviors to compensate. These include:

  • Turning your head to put your “good ear” closer to the source of the sound. This subtle act can become so instinctual that you may not even notice you’re doing it.
  • Asking for repetition. If you find that people just don’t speak loudly enough and you constantly have to ask, “Huh?” or “What?” during a conversation, it’s likely not them – it’s you.
  • You feel vulnerable on the job. If you feel especially anxious or uncomfortable in confrontational situations because you don’t feel fully aware of your surroundings, hearing loss could be causing the problem.
  • Loud environments feel overwhelming. If going out to dinner or drinks at a restaurant or bar feels uncomfortable or tense because you can’t hear or keep up with the conversation, that’s a clear sign of a problem.
  • Withdrawing from activities. Sometimes hearing loss can make you so uncomfortable that you’d rather just stay home. For example, if you make excuses to avoid dinner dates or skip out on your child’s school play because you can’t hear, it’s clear hearing loss is impacting your life.
  • Miscommunication or misunderstandings. Sometimes you may feel embarrassed or afraid of annoying others by constantly asking them to repeat what they’ve said, so instead, you just try your best to muddle through. This can lead to relationship issues with coworkers or loved ones because you’re missing vital parts of the conversation and not fully understanding the information, their perspective or their feelings.

HERE’S WHAT TO DO

If any of those behaviors seem familiar, or you’ve been told by others that you might have a problem, it may be time to get help. But first, you should know there’s no reason to be embarrassed. NIHL is simply a known occupational hazard of a very tough job.

First, get a hearing test with a qualified audiologist. A trained professional can measure your hearing range and suggest solutions, like hearing aids, that can help. It’s important to note that today’s hearing aids are not your grandpa’s hearing aids. These are high-tech audio devices that are barely detectible and designed for an active lifestyle.

Many even come with Bluetooth and a companion smartphone app that allows you to adjust the settings based on the environment. For example, you can dial up the background noise cancellation for an intimate dinner date or adjust for a traffic-control or crowd-control situation.

PREVENTION IS IMPORTANT, TOO

Perhaps you’re not quite there yet. Maybe hearing loss isn’t an issue or you’re an officer who’s new to the job. You don’t have to accept NIHL as an unavoidable fate. While wearing hearing protection may not be practical in all situations, certainly, you’ll want to always wear it on the shooting range.

Off the job, practice good hearing hygiene. Purposefully immerse yourself in silence whenever possible to help “reset” the auditory function and give your ears a break. The fact that NIHL is caused by cumulative damage means that avoiding noise whenever possible can counteract the impact of noise on the job.

Finally, get a proactive hearing test now and once a year going forward. Even if you think you can hear just fine, getting screened now can give you a baseline measurement to compare with each year, so you can intervene at the right time. Prolonged hearing loss can cause permanent damage to the auditory nerve, so early intervention is critical to ensuring hearing aids can work to restore functional hearing before it’s too late.

NEXT: How to buy headsets (eBook)


About the author

Dr. Hope Lanter is a lead audiologist at hear.com, a global leader in hearing care and the largest online retailer of medical-grade hearing aids. Dr. Lanter has more than 15 years of experience as an audiologist working directly with patients and helping them find the best hearing loss treatments that fit their individual needs. She received her M.A. in audiology from the University of Iowa and her Au.D. in audiology from A.T. Still University of Health Sciences.

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