Dental professionals are increasingly becoming aware of the need for hearing protection during their workday. While a dental office might not strike you as an obviously “loud” place or where sound might reach damaging levels as expected in a workplace like a factory or other industrial setting, it is a definite risk.
In this article, we will go over the danger of loud sounds, which can damage hearing health as a dental professional, the options for protection, what dental ear plugs are, and how they work.
What Is Noise-induced Hearing Loss?
The hearing portion of the inner ear, or cochlea, is a fluid-filled organ. Sound travels through the ear canal and into the middle ear, where the ossicles push into a membrane leading to the inner ear and create a “traveling wave,” activating tiny hair cells tuned to specific frequencies. Noise exposure can cause damage to these hair cells, which unfortunately do not regenerate.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlines guidelines for safe workplace environments, and noise exposure is one of their regulatory areas. The noise is measured by intensity (loudness) and frequency (pitch), and the amount of allowable exposure time depends on these factors.
As you might imagine, deafening sounds have shorter exposure times and work environments with louder noise typically mandate the use of hearing protection. In other settings, such as dental offices, the noise levels are not quite as intense, and therefore hearing protection might be considered optional. OSHA also mandates regular hearing testing in certain settings to monitor any potential shifts in hearing thresholds.
Noise-induced hearing loss often has a very characteristic pattern of a “notch” at 4000 Hz. Sometimes patients can have normal hearing with a mild hearing loss just at this one frequency, or in other cases this is simply the area where the hearing loss is most severe. Another factor commonly associated with noise-induced hearing loss is the presence of tinnitus. The use of hearing protection in noisy environments can help to prevent hearing loss from occurring or prevent it from becoming worse if it has already been initiated.
It is important to note that many factors contribute to hearing loss in addition to noise, including age and genetics. There is no guarantee that regular use of hearing protection will prevent any degree of future hearing loss, but it is always beneficial to be on the safe side.
What Are The Options For Hearing Protection? What Are The Pros And Cons?
There are a few different options for hearing protection. The first is basic foam earplugs which are meant to expand and fit the user’s ear canal. While this style might seem like the simplest option, they need to be inserted properly in order to work. The foam or silicone earplugs should be rolled between your fingers and inserted deeply into the ear canal, and then allowed to expand. If they are not put in deeply enough, they will not provide the prescribed attenuation level.
Another non-custom option for hearing protection is over-the-ear headphones or earmuffs. These are probably easier to use properly but can be large and uncomfortable to wear for extended periods. This design is more economically and environmentally friendly, though, as they can be worn repeatedly and by different people, whereas the foam inserts are typically single-use. One disadvantage to both styles is that, while offering attenuation from the damaging noise, they may also prevent the user from hearing other sounds around them, including the user’s voice.
There are custom earplugs that require an earmold impression taken by an audiologist or hearing aid dispenser. A cotton or foam tip is placed deep into the ear canal to stop the impression material from traveling too far into the ear. Acrylic or silicone impression material is put into the ear canal, and the helix portion of the outer ear, and the impressions are sent to a manufacturer to build the earplugs. In addition to potentially being more comfortable than standard inserts or headphones, there are also options for filters in order to protect the user from dangerous sounds but allow another sound in.
Finally, there are non-custom options that provide filtering technology to allow sounds of certain frequencies and/or intensities to pass through unchanged but attenuate louder and/or more high-frequency sounds. Sometimes it is a flat filter that attenuates all sounds equally to differing degrees, and others customize based on frequency.
You can do a quick test to understand why this frequency filtering might be beneficial. If you stick your fingers in your ears (gently), you’ll notice that higher-pitched sounds are gone or significantly reduced, while you can still hear lower-frequency sounds, including your own voice, though it will likely sound slightly distorted. If it is important to continue hearing certain sounds or to preserve the fidelity of the incoming signal (such as with music) one of these options that lowers the volume of all incoming frequencies equally might be more appropriate.
What Are Dental Ear Plugs? How Do They Work?
Dental ear plugs probably fall into the category of hearing protection with some filtering to prevent certain damaging sounds. Dentists and dental hygienists interact with patients, after all, and will want to be able to communicate during the course of the dental work but be protected from the noise of high-speed drills, ultrasonic instruments and cleaners, and high-volume evacuators. The combination of these devices can exceed 85 decibels, the noise limit that OSHA identified for a standard eight-hour workday. It is common practice for dentists and dental hygienists to wear masks and use eye protection, so it makes sense to protect their ears, too.
What Are Some Examples Of Dental Ear Plugs?
1. Big Ear Inc Dentist Custom Earplugs ($224.95)
As the name implies, these earplugs are custom and require an earmold impression. From there, you can continue to customize your set by choosing how large they are (how much of the concha bowl of your ear they will fill), the color(s), the filter attenuation(s), and even have options for lanyards and engraved initials.
2. Westone TRU Custom Professional Musician Ear Plugs ($199)
Westone is a top-rated manufacturer of earmolds and custom tips for hearing aids and is, therefore, a popular choice of audiologists who are fitting patients with musician’s ear plugs. This is a great option for dentists or anyone looking for custom-filtered hearing protection. Of note, Westone also makes a non-custom musician’s earplug option, their “universal fit,” at a lower price point of under $20 if you are looking to try something before committing to an earmold impression.
3. QuietOn Dental Package ($229)
These earbuds are not custom, but they incorporate active noise cancellation rather than relying only on the ear’s physical occlusion. Active noise cancellation involves the production of a sound wave that is the exact inverse of the unwanted sound, and the two cancel each other out.
This technology is probably familiar to anyone who has tried noise-canceling headphones on an airplane or otherwise. The package includes one pair of earplugs with a charging case and cable (the noise cancellation feature requires a charge) as well as extra ear tips.
4. Vibes Hi-Fi Earplugs ($28.95)
These are a non-custom option with three interchangeable ear tip sizes and come with a carrying case. They are a more affordable option that will provide about 22 decibels of attenuation across frequencies. These are designed for anyone who is looking for hearing protection in situations such as concerts, recreational activities, or occupational noise.
5. Denplugs ($38.99)
Designed specifically for dentists and dental hygienists, these are meant to allow professionals to continue conversing with patients while protecting their hearing from the high-frequency sounds of the drill and other tools. They are not custom-fit, meaning they do not require an earmold impression.
Dental Ear Plugs Takeaway
If you are a dentist or dental hygienist, using hearing protection regularly is a good idea. As you can see, there are various options at differing price points, so you can easily test something out without making a huge investment. If comfort becomes an issue, moving to a custom product may help. Notably, if you are experiencing signs of hearing loss, including tinnitus, you should have your hearing tested. It is possible that some occupational noise-induced hearing loss has begun, and it is even more critical to stop the progression of the hearing loss.
Erin Edwards received her Doctor of Audiology degree from Towson University in 2015 and her Ph.D. in Education and Leadership from Pacific University in 2022. She has worked with patients of all ages in a variety of settings and has a specific interest in cochlear implants, the relationship of hearing loss and dementia, and interdisciplinary healthcare.