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How Loud Is Too Loud? Doctors and Club Owners on Hearing Loss and Volume

By Molly Beauchemin, January 14, 2014 at 1:45 p.m. EST

Last year, Grimes cancelled tour dates because of her struggle with tinnitus. Photo by Daniel Cavazos.

A few months ago while photographing a concert in Montreal, I saw something I'd never seen at a show before: audience members covering their ears.

That image came back to me a little while later, when Grimes revealed her struggle with tinnitus and tweeted that the ringing in her ears was so loud she couldn’t sleep. I thought of it again when I read an interview with Zach Hill of Death Grips, in which he mentioned the ear blockage he experienced as a result of lifelong exposure to loud music. Then I came across a story about a music fan who killed himself over chronic hearing damage incurred at a concert. And another. And then, eight others—before unearthing a jarring world of message board threads dedicated to suicidal thoughts that result from tinnitus.

Tinnitus is a neurological problem that originates in the brain, involving miscommunication between noise-damaged sensory cells; the result is a continuous ringing sound in the ears. Tinnitus is permanent. Once sensitive hair cells are damaged, they can no longer transmit impulses to the auditory nerve and to the brain. 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus (2 million become so debilitated by unrelenting ringing that they are incapable of carrying out normal daily activities), and musicians are at significantly higher risk than the general population. The only other group who suffer so ubiquitous from hearing damage are GIs exposed to wartime explosions.

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