Here's a shocking little piece of information for you: six minutes in a sports arena can expose you to 81 times your daily limit of healthy noise.
That statistic came from a researcher who measured noise levels at the 2006 Stanley Cup hockey playoffs, but it wasn't a uniquely noisy event. The fans who attend Seattle Seahawks games in CenturyLink Stadium, better known as "The 12th Man," set the Guinness World Record for crowd noise in 2013. Their cheers reached 137.6 decibels — about the same sound level as you'd experience standing 150 feet away from a jet engine during takeoff. Their cheers actually induced a mini-earthquake.
This is bad news for people's hearing health. And if the fans are at risk, just think about the players.
The Offense: Crowd Noise
Without appropriate ear protection, exposure to noise levels of approximately 85 decibels for eight consecutive hours can lead to damage of the hair cells of the inner ear, a possible temporary hearing loss, and can eventually lead to permanent hearing loss over time. For every additional 3 decibels, that safe exposure time is cut in half.
The crowd noise at NFL games currently averages between 80 and 90 decibels, and is often even louder during exciting moments of the game. Announcers often urge the crowd to make as much noise as they possibly can. Many fan sections try to push the boundaries with noise levels, aiming for over 100 decibels. At that point, it can only take 1 to 15 minutes for your ears to be exposed for damage to take place.
To make matters worse, newer stadiums are often designed to amplify crowd noise, because louder cheering is perceived as exciting for fans and motivating for players. They're built as small as possible and with surfaces that reflect or amplify sound waves back into the stands. If the arena has a roof, like some football stadiums and most hockey and basketball stadiums, the amplification is even greater.
The Threat: Hearing Loss and Tinnitus
Without hearing protection, people who go to a lot of games are at significant risk for noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus. But referees, stadium staff, and the players themselves are even more exposed, because they're around the dangerous noise levels on a consistent basis.
In one study involving high school sports officials, about half the participants reported the presence of tinnitus after officiating a game. What's more, about 13% of them said they "almost always" experienced tinnitus after a game.
These effects are cumulative, so even minor inflictions on your hearing can build up over time and contribute to noise-induced hearing loss.
The Defense: Ear Protection and Hearing Screenings
While athletes and officials often take precautions to protect themselves from head, neck, or other muscular/skeletal injuries, noise exposure poses a more widespread threat. Fewer minutes of playing time doesn't mean fewer minutes of crowd noise. Coaching staff, arena staff, and officials are present for the event's entire duration as well.
For frequent fans, the most inexpensive and easy solution is earplugs. For only a few dollars, earplugs can lower sound levels by 20-30 decibels while still allowing you to enjoy the game. It might be tempting to take them out or skip them altogether, but your ears will definitely thank you in the long run if you wear them.
However, for former players, coaches, arena staff, and officials, ear plugs are not much help after the fact. If you find yourself in this situation, the best thing you can do is get annual hearing health screenings. This way, you can track your hearing health over time, catch any hearing loss early, and take action to help you hear better.