In my years as an audiologist, I’ve met many dentists and dental assistants with hearing issues. Their symptoms have been both common and unique. Many complain of tinnitus—that ringing in the ears caused by noise. Others, and sometimes the same patients, have very specific hearing loss at high frequencies.
Both issues, tinnitus and targeted sensorineural hearing loss, demonstrate the same concept. Dental workers, because of the nature of what they do and the instruments they use, are more susceptible to noise-induced hearing issues than other people.
How can that be? It’s not like the dental office is a rock concert or a construction site. True, but put simply, the combined noise from dental instruments, used daily for several hours a day, exceeds safe noise levels. Dentists often don’t realize that fact until it’s too late.
The Prevalence of Hearing Issues in Dentistry
Research on the prevalence of noise-induced hearing loss among dental professionals is fragmented, with different studies taking place around the world.
That said, according to a 2016 study by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC) College of Dentistry, 31% percent of dental workers believe that their work as a dentist has caused a change in their hearing. Rates of tinnitus, which isn’t the same as hearing loss but can be a sign of hearing loss to come, trend even higher among dental staff, with nearly 33% reporting at least some level of tinnitus.
Many dentists don’t realize they’re suffering from hearing loss when they arrive at my office. Although tinnitus is obvious, hearing loss in the high frequencies, caused by prolonged exposure to the din of dental equipment, is less so.
Some of these patients don’t even complain of hearing loss per se, but rather that they can’t make out what people with high-pitched voices—typically women and children—are saying, or that they sometimes have trouble concentrating, or they grow tired listening to conversations. All are symptoms of sensorineural, noise-induced hearing loss.
But there are a few steps dental professionals can take to avoid the effects of hearing loss and tinnitus.
Understand the Situation
Noise is measured in decibels. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has determined that prolonged exposure to noise greater than 85 decibels is unsafe.
In its study, the OUHSC College of Dentistry also concluded that “dentists are at risk of exposure to hazardous noise levels in their work environment, with that risk related to time of exposure to dental handpieces and suction.” Neither piece of equipment by itself consistently exceeded 85 decibels. But together, and especially when suction was obstructed, they averaged nearly 100 decibels.
In short, yes, using dental equipment for hours a day exposes dentists to enough noise to affect their hearing. Understanding that fact could lead to the purchase of quieter equipment, if available, and should certainly prompt dental professionals to take further steps to protect themselves.
Establish a Hearing Baseline
Knowing their job could affect their hearing, dental workers should get their hearing tested early in their careers. Because the sound that many dental instruments emit is high-pitched, it tends to affect hearing at those higher frequencies.
Again, noise-induced hearing loss at high frequencies can be hard to self-detect. People tend to associate hearing loss with a lack of volume. An audiologist can help understand if a patient is having trouble perceiving certain frequencies.
Take Protective Measures
Dentists and dental assistants sometimes need to communicate with their patients and hear what they have to say. So although ear plugs or other protective equipment can keep them safe from noise, dental workers usually can’t go that route.
What’s needed are special earpieces designed to filter out the noise of dental equipment while allowing other sounds, like voices, to get through. Musicians have long worn discrete earpieces, often custom fit, to protect their hearing. These days, there are companies that make similar technology for dentists.
Wear Hearing Aids, When Appropriate
If you find you’re suffering some level of noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus, like about one in five dental professionals, modern digital hearing aids are available to help. They can manage hearing loss so it doesn’t get worse, filter out unwanted frequencies, augment frequencies dentists need to hear better, and even treat that pesky tinnitus.
Today’s hearing aids are small and discreet. Many even resemble consumer earbuds and come in attractive colors, unlike the bulky hearing devices of yesterday. They’re controllable from a smartphone, can also stream music, and include advanced digital signal processing so they sound perfectly natural.
Other features in select modern hearing aids include:
- Face mask mode, which helps overcome muffled speech by people wearing masks and improves communication. This is a key feature for those in dentistry both during and after the pandemic, as dentists wear masks daily, which affects communication while talking with dental assistants and other colleagues.
- Acoustic motion sensors, which sense movement and automatically adjust settings to deliver highly personalized hearing throughout the wearer’s day.
- “Own voice” processing, a feature that recognizes the wearer’s voice and processes it separately from other sounds, overcoming a common complaint of people with hearing aids who perceive distortion when they speak.
And for the roughly one-third or more of dental professionals who report experiencing tinnitus, today’s hearing aids offer built-in therapy. Some can play scientifically researched tones to overcome the tinnitus.
Signia Hearing Aids makes devices that incorporate something called notch therapy. A hearing care professional identifies the exact pitch of a dentist’s tinnitus and programs a frequency notch into their hearing aids to match, which can actually suppress the tinnitus.
Identity the Problem, Embrace the Solution
Even today, we continue to learn more about hearing loss and tinnitus—the extent of the problem, the risks, effects, and treatments. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 26 million adults in the United States have suffered damage to their hearing from exposure to noise. Many don’t realize it, nor understand they don’t have to live with it.
Noise-induced hearing loss can take a toll. Studies have shown people’s cognitive facilities work harder to make out speech and other everyday sounds when their hearing suffers. When that happens, they suffer fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Some even withdraw from social situations.
Dental professionals, like many others, need to be aware of the job-related risks to their hearing. And armed with that understanding, they can rest assured that solutions exist to avoid long-term effects.
Dr. Taylor is the director of clinical content development for Signia Hearing Aids. He is also the editor of Audiology Practices, a quarterly journal of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, editor-at-large for Hearing Health and Technology Matters, and adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin. He has authored several peer reviewed articles and textbooks and is a highly sought out lecturer. He has nearly 30 years of experience as a clinician, business manager, and university instructor. His most recent textbooks, Audiology Practice Management and the third edition of Selecting and Fitting Hearing Aids, were published in 2020.