Does going to the gym cause hearing loss? Or does it help manage tinnitus? Make sure your workout isn’t damaging your hearing with these quick tips.
You understand how important exercise is to your health and wellbeing. Cardio keeps your heart healthy. It curbs obesity. You feel better.
Strength training, in particular, has many benefits. It increases muscle mass, reduces body fat and improves balance. It decreases bone loss as you age.
The CDC, American Heart Association, International Osteoporosis Foundation, and many other important health organizations agree on the importance of weight training for all adults.
But sometimes working out has side effects you didn’t realize. You’re probably aware of sports injuries and the like. But did you realize that working out can harm your hearing?
Let’s take a look at how your routine may contribute to hearing loss and what you can do to prevent it.
How Strength Training Can Impact Your Hearing
Many workout routines push you to the limits of your endurance. That’s where you’re able to break down muscle tissues and form new muscle. When muscles grow, it’s actually the tissue repairing the muscle. As these protein-packed tissues, called myofibrils, fuse the muscle fibers together, the fibers become a part of a bigger, stronger muscle.
This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. But how you push yourself to attain those 15+ inch biceps, or those rippling thighs can be.
Your goal may not be to get “ripped” but rather to have a nice physique and to stay in great physical shape so you can continue to stay active and do what you love.
These are worthy goals. But here’s where things can go terribly wrong in the weight room.
What Causes Workout-Related Hearing Loss?
There are several factors that contribute to hearing loss–some related to the workout itself, and some to the gym.
Straining Your Muscles Also Strains Blood Vessels
The first hearing loss culprit is straining. When you strain to get in that last rep, you’re putting pressure on your brain. You already knew this. You could feel the blood rushing to your head. You could see how red your cheeks are when you lift in front of a mirror.
You simply may have thought it was harmless.
This straining causes pressure to build in the ears. Air is forced up through your Eustachian tubes. These manage the pressure inside your middle ear.
If this pressure isn’t managed, then the pressure within or without would cause the eardrum to burst in or burst outward. That’s why your ears pop when you hike in the mountains, go scuba diving or fly.
The Eustachian tubes are regulating the pressure.
Straining can also cause enough pressure to generate a perilymphatic fistula (PLF), which is a tear in the membrane that separates the middle ear from the inner ear. Such a tear will cause sudden hearing loss and balance issues.
People who suffer from this will first notice a feeling a fullness in their ears. This is often accompanied by extreme pain, dizziness, and intolerance to sudden movement. If they continue to work out with this injury, the symptoms will become worse and complete, and permanent, hearing loss may result.
Straining while lifting can also lead to exercise-induced Eustachian tube dysfunction. Overuse causes the tubes to become inflamed. This inflammation blocks the flow of air through the tubes, making them less effective. Less effective Eustachian tubes mean you’re more prone to exercise-induced hearing loss.
Holding Your Breath When Lifting Weights Causes Pressure in the Ears
The second culprit is holding your breath. You may hold your breath to put all of your power toward the lift. But in doing so, you’re further increasing the pressure on your brain and in your ears.
How the Gym Itself Causes Hearing Loss
This isn’t just a bodybuilder problem. If you’re taking spinning, Zumba or other aerobics classes, chances are the volume is cranked up to damaging levels.
Outside in the cardio and weight room, the music is blasting. TVs are blaring. Or you may choose to get in the zone with your own music through earbuds. Weights are clanking on polls, racks and machines.
Even if you skip the gym and go for a jog, chances are you’re taking your music with you. All of this impacts hearing.
Signs Your Workout Might Be Damaging Your Hearing
Now, let’s look at the warning signs of hearing damage.
- Temporary Tinnitus – If you have ringing in your ears when you leave the gym, chances are your workout routine is impacting your hearing.
- Frequent Tinnitus – If the tinnitus is arising while you’re at home and becoming more frequent, hearing damage is definitely occurring.
- You feel sore immediately after or during your workout – Muscle soreness should occur 24-48 hours after a workout. If you feel soreness or pain during a workout, you’re pushing your body (and your ears) too far.
- Your ears feel full while working out – Unless you have a cold, in which case you shouldn’t be a the gym anyway, a full feeling in the ears means the pressure in your ears is too high.
- You’re turning red – If you’re turning red or have veins bulging in your head or neck, you’re at high risk of exercise-induced hearing loss.
Why Does Strenuous Exercise Make My Ears Feel Clogged?
Maybe you’ve experienced this: you finish your workout and, suddenly, your ears feel as though they’re clogged, as though they’re full of water or something.
The sensation can be disconcerting, especially as none of your typical get-the-water-out-of-my-ears strategies successfully restore your hearing. And, in a panic, you think to yourself: did my strenuous exercise make my ears feel clogged like this?
It turns out, though, that the “clogged” feeling has nothing to do with fluids of any kind.
In other words, your ears aren’t clogged or blocked at all. They just aren’t working right. In some cases, a strenuous workout can cause a lack of blood flow to your ears. After all, your blood is busy being useful somewhere else (your brain or your bicep, perhaps).
Blocked vs. Clogged vs. Lack of Blood Flow
So why do your ears feel as though they’re full of fluid if they aren’t clogged? Well, what’s probably happened is that the nerves in your ears aren’t receiving as much blood as they should (on account of your strenuous workout).
And when those nerves don’t receive the blood (and oxygen) they need, they can no longer operate, leading to temporary state where they don’t work as well. In other words, your ears have more or less shut down.
Your brain tries to make sense of this feeling–it tries to give you some context for what you’re hearing (or failing to hear). The only other time your brain has failed to receive messages from your ears is when they’ve been clogged or blocked, so your cognitive processes use that as a shorthand. That’s why your ears feel clogged even when they aren’t.
The Clogged Sensation Goes Away… Usually
This sensation usually goes away after a short time (or you can try putting your head between your knees to help encourage the blood to start flowing to your brain again). If the sensation does not pass, it’s worth scheduling some time with a hearing specialist, who will be able to determine a specific reason why your strenuous workout made your ears feel clogged.
How to Prevent Workout-Related Hearing Loss
Now let’s talk prevention. You love the gym. Working out is good for you. You’re not giving it up. You don’t have to if you take these simple steps.
- Avoid straining and holding your breath while lifting.
- If you experience PLF symptoms (such as dizziness, imbalance, vertigo or vomiting), stop lifting immediately and schedule an appointment with your doctor.
- Know when enough is enough. Extreme weight lifting has more risks than rewards.
- Wear earplugs when music is loud. You can get earplugs that only block 20 decibels or so. Most people can still enjoy the music or hear an instructor with that level of protection.
- Be mindful of how loud your headphones are. At full volume, a typical portable music player can produce 115 decibels. Hearing damage starts at 85 decibels. Use the 60/60 rule. No more than 60 minutes at 60% volume.
- Be aware that earbuds increase sound by around 9 decibels over regular headphones. If you use earbuds, lower the volume even more.
- Get noise-dampening headphones. This blocks outside noise so that you don’t feel the need to turn your music up so loud.
- Get a sound meter app on your smartphone. Test the noise levels in your gym. Protect yourself accordingly.
- Get a hearing test if you notice any changes in hearing, including hearing sounds that aren’t there like ringing.
Hearing-Friendly Workouts for Strength and Balance
There are several hearing-friendly activities you can do to improve strength and balance.
The International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) found that older adults who practice Tai Chi have 47% fewer falls and 25% fewer hip fractures. Through bone density scans they were able to confirm a slowing of the usual bone loss in postmenopausal women.
Tai Chi strengthens the whole body, but especially the legs, through fluid dance-like movements.
Several studies support the benefits of yoga on balance, overall muscle function, strength and pain reduction as you age. One such study showed that yoga had the following results for participants who already had osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis:
- Increased walking capacity
- 54% improved balance
- Significant pain reduction
If it can do this much in people already suffering from arthritis, imagine what it can do for you.
While you may think of yoga as a flexibility activity, know that yoga includes many poses that increase upper body, lower body and core strength while reducing the risks of exercise-induced hearing damage.
A Harvard Medical School study performed DEXA scans on 741 people. 227 of these participants practiced yoga regularly. The others were the control group. The DEXA scans revealed that the people who practiced yoga had significantly higher bone density in their backs and slightly greater density in their hips.
Yoga and Tai Chi also help lower blood pressure, which can help prevent hearing loss.
Free Weights & Resistance Bands
Free weights and bands help you build and maintain upper body strength without lifting-induced hearing damage.
One study looked at adults 60 and older. This study confirmed, as has been shown in other studies, that you don’t have to lift at your max to build muscle mass even as an older adult.
Lifting weights or using resistance bands at just 60% of your total strength capacity builds muscle and improves bone density efficiently and safely without that risk of hearing damage. Lifting something at 60% of your total strength requires no straining or holding your breath.
Working Out Can Provide Relief for Tinnitus
It’s worth pointing out that exercise can also be good for your ears. In particular, working out can provide relief for tinnitus in specific ways. If you’ve been diagnosed with chronic tinnitus, you can talk to your hearing specialist about what types of workouts might provide the most relief for your symptoms. For some people, jogging might be the way to go, for others, it could be all about those deadlifts.
Whatever form of exercise you choose, there are usually some noticeable and substantial benefits directed towards tinnitus symptoms.
Improvements in Blood Pressure and Inflammation
Tinnitus is incredibly sensitive to the overall health of your body. General health issues, such as high blood pressure or inflammation, can make tinnitus significantly worse. So it makes sense that exercise–which has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve inflammation–can help minimize some of your tinnitus symptoms.
Improvements in Your Mood
Tinnitus itself can drastically impact your overall mood–usually in a negative way. And that can lead to a kind of vicious cycle in which your dour mood can actually make your tinnitus symptoms worse. Exercise can improve your mood in all sorts of ways (releasing endorphins, improving self-esteem, and so on), which can have a positive impact on your tinnitus symptoms.
Improvements in Circulation
One thing exercise does without fail is to get your blood flowing. And it’s precisely this robust improvement in your circulation that can lead to correlational improvements in your tinnitus symptoms. In many cases, lack of blood flow to the ears can exacerbate tinnitus, so keeping everything circulating in a healthy, positive way can help keep your tinnitus symptoms under control.
Improvements in Relaxation
Not all workouts are about working up a sweat. Some workouts–such as Tai Chi or Yoga–are designed to help you calm down and exert more specific types of control over your body. As we have noted, both yoga and Tai Chi have been shown to help those with tinnitus manage some of their most potent symptoms.
Keep Your Fitness in Mind
There are any number of ways that working out can provide relief for tinnitus and improve your overall good health. But it’s important to keep your overall fitness levels and workout goals in mind. You don’t want to push yourself too hard and end up with an injury. Working out can provide relief from tinnitus, but those workouts don’t have to be strenuous to be effective. Even walking for a half hour at a time can help with this. And any behaviour that reduces high blood pressure is likely to help with tinnitus as well.
For more tips and information about protecting your hearing as an active adult follow our blog.
Page medically reviewed by Kevin St. Clergy, Audiologist, on December 2, 2019.