HEALTH: Bad Vibes
Loud music can be harmful
The truly best seats at Jazz Fest are a healthy distance from the amplifiers and down a bit on the decibel scale.
Loud music is a health risk, a risk more real than post-Katrina mold hysteria. And yet the same folks who reflexively don face masks around flooded debris rarely use earplugs to mute loud music.
At one time New Orleans even had a noise-control program; health inspectors with noise meters monitored bars in an attempt to make living more comfortable for the neighbors. Excessive noise from electronically amplified music in bars obviously disrupts neighborhood peace and quiet.
Long-term exposure to loud music might lead to deafness, and that’s bad enough. But a Belgian pulmonary disease specialist went public with four case histories of youngsters who experienced life-threatening health issues attributed to loud music.
“A [19 year-old connoisseur of blaring music] installed a 1000 Watt bass box in the boot [that’s a car trunk to us non-Europeans] as he liked to listen to loud music in his car. While doing this he experienced a sudden pain in the right side of his chest followed by breathlessness,” says the peer-reviewed paper in the European medical journal Thorax.
The young man immediately knew he had collapsed his lung as this was his second such experience. The first time it happened, he had been riding a noisy motorcycle. A chest X-ray confirmed the diagnosis – a collapsed section of lung and a couple of other air blebs subject to rupture in the future.
The specific diagnosis was a spontaneous pneumothorax, medical terminology for the sudden collapse of part of a lung usually caused by the rupture of an enlarged air bleb on the lung’s surface. This allows air to rush out of one lung into the usually empty pleural space separating the surface of the lung from the chest wall. Young and tall males are at higher risk for this lung equivalent of a blowout. Smoking increases the risk many fold.
How can loud music cause such a collapse? Sound waves are a form of mechanical energy, and anything that can break glass is certainly capable of causing some internal problems. The Belgian researchers opined that the sound-induced pressure changes ripped apart the thin walled enlarged air sacs on the surface of the lung allowing air to leak into the previously empty pleural space.
Another possible mechanism is a malfunctioning physiological valve important in maintaining a pressure equilibrium between different segments of lung tissue. Excessive mucus from any sort of inflammatory process could block this check valve causing a superficial bleb to rupture like stuffed up ear problems made worse by rapid airplane altitude changes.
There is a third way favored as most likely by the Belgian physicians. Repetitive blasts of high energy noise impulses over time cause direct damage to lung tissue. In experiments with rats low-frequency but high-intense noise causes both structural and functional changes. All three major portions of the lungs can be affected — the airways, the pulmonary air sacs where oxygen transfer occurs, and the nerve-rich pleural covering of the lungs.
How can this be? Remember, sound waves are an energy force. Low-frequency sounds are often boosted to enhance amplified music. Standing before an amplifier turns your lungs into low pass filters absorbing excess energy. Some high-end but noisy restaurants use the same principle. They pad walls and under tables with cloth and other soft materials to absorb excessive dining room noise.
The Belgian pulmonary physicians reported on three other young men in their twenties with collapsed lungs and loud music connections. One was attending a heavy metal rock concert, and the other was in a loud dance hall. The third was at a rock concert standing a couple of yards from several large speakers. The music was loud. All of a sudden, he experienced a searing right sided chest pain and became short of breath. A chest x-ray confirmed the diagnosis – another pop concert spontaneous pneumothorax.
The temporal occurrence of the lung collapses in these young men all during exposure to loud music suggested a causative relationship, but local otolaryngologist Dr. Michael Ellis is skeptical.
“It is uncertain if the cited cases were literally caused by the sound or simply occurred coincidentally with the loud music. What about all the spontaneous collapses that occur where noise is not a factor? As they say in court, unlikely but not impossible,” said Ellis.
On the other hand, the data showing a relationship between hearing loss and loud music are solid according to Ellis.
“Loudness is a subjective term based on capacity to hear, but damage to the ear’s sensitive hair cells can occur without perceived loudness based on intensity of sound and time of exposure. For example, a shotgun blast adjacent to ear can cause immediate temporary or permanent hearing loss in that ear. Loud music at lower decibels but for several hours can do the same,” added Ellis.
Dr. R. John Wakeman, a clinical psychologist in private practice near Touro, is a lifelong drummer.
“During high school and college in the 1960s, I played drums for the Canadian Legend. We played rock and roll at area night clubs in addition to many LSU and Tulane fraternity parties,” said Wakeman.
“I was sitting directly in front of my lead guitar’s huge Fender piggyback amp most weekends and nightly throughout the summers. My ears would hurt, but I just ignored it. After graduate school, I went into the Army. They discovered that I had significant high frequency hearing loss bilaterally,”
“My ongoing concern is that my hearing loss will dip down further into the speech range,” added Wakeman who still plays drums for mostly private parties and festivals around town. His current band is Dr. Rob and the Prescriptions.
How serious is hearing loss for musicians? Dr. Richard Spector is an otolaryngologist whose practice includes most local professional singers in addition to a fair number of musicians who play in bands.
“It is my impression that the folks who listen to loud music have more hearing damage than the musicians, because the musicians are BEHIND, rather than in front of the speakers. I have seen patients who left a concert with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and high frequency hearing loss. On most occasions, this reverses itself. But repeated exposure/injury results in permanent high frequency hearing loss,” said Spector
“On some occasions, I have treated young people with profound unilateral hearing loss sustained by exposing one ear to a speaker while standing next to a speaker at a bar or concert. This loss often is permanent. Any nerve hearing loss may become associated with tinnitus and/or recruitment (the perception of sound as louder than it is). Recruitment can be so painful as to force the individual to leave a gathering,” concluded Spector.
Conclusion – loud music affects different folks in different ways. In the ‘I am sure he is pulling my leg department’ came this email from a urologist temporarily living in Florida who will remain nameless: “Loud music coming into my house on Esplanade Ave has caused me to develop erectile dysfunction. Thank God for Viagra.”