Can Some Drivers Cause Hearing Loss?

Thwack! Ping! Ting! Whomp! Can your driver damage your hearing? I say (raising voice), can your driver damage your hearing?

In theory, yes, say researchers. That possibility is warned of by a group of British doctors who studied the question of driver impact noise on golfers' hearing back in 2008, and whose report on the subject was published in the British Medical Journal.

The hearing specialists claim in their article that golfers susceptible to hearing loss might be at risk as a result of the loud, percussive "pops" and "pings" produced at impact by today's thin-faced, titanium and composite drivers.

A BBC news report on the study tells how the doctors became interested in studying driver noise:

"Ear specialists suspect the 'sonic boom' the metal club head makes when it strikes the ball damaged the hearing of a 55-year-old golfer they treated.

"... The man had been playing with a (thin-faced titanium driver) three times a week for 18 months and commented that the noise of the club hitting the ball was 'like a gun going off.'

"It had become so unpleasant that he decided to ditch the club, but by this time he had already suffered some hearing loss.

"Doctors at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital carried out tests on the keen golfer after he attended their clinic with unexplained tinnitus and reduced hearing in his right ear.

"The tests confirmed that his hearing problems were typical of those seen with exposure to loud noises."

A single anecdote proves nothing, of course, so the doctors recruited an accomplished golfer to help them test the sound levels created at impact by some of the top drivers on the market.

Those results were synopsized in a report that aired on ABC News. The safe limit for "those kinds of explosive sounds," ABC News reported, is 110 decibels.

All of the thin-faced, titanium drivers tested in the study produced impact sounds greater than that level. In fact, all of them were above 120 decibels, with the Ping G10 (remember, this study wad done in 2008) the loudest of those tested at close to 130 decibels. (And it seems only appropriate that the onomatopoeic Ping would test loudest).

How do those levels compare to other loud noises? The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association rates some other decibel levels as follows:

  • 80 decibels — alarm clock, busy street
  • 90 decibels — lawnmower, truck traffic
  • 100 decibels — chain saw
  • 110 decibels — model airplane
  • 120 decibels — amplified rock music heard from 4-6 feet, jet plane takeoff from 100 yards
  • 130 decibels — jackhammer
  • 140 decibels — firearms, jet engine
The threshold of pain is considered to be 140 decibels.

Should recreational golfers really be concerned about this? I certainly am not qualified to judge the findings of medical studies. Probably neither are you. That's why we all need to listen to subject-matter experts.

It seems counterintuitive that 14 loud "pops" lasting a split-second, spread over a four-round of golf, and heard from a distance of 5-6 feet (depending on the golfers' height) would carry much of a risk for an individual whose ears are healthy.

However, some experts in the field (whose opinions outweigh mine by about a million times) are urging golfers to be cautious. And for people susceptible to hearing loss, a single, very loud noise can be all it takes.

Dr. Malcom Buchanan, an ear, nose and throat specialist (and golfer) who was the lead researcher for the paper published in the British Medical Journal, is quoted by the BBC: "Our results show that thin-faced, titanium drivers may produce sufficient sound to induce temporary or even permanent cochlear damage in susceptible individuals."

An audiologist with Britain's Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) is also quoted by the BBC:

"Exposure to loud impulse sounds over time can cause damage. It is a short, sharp burst of very loud peak sound with this type of golf club.

"Earplugs would offer some protection and if someone was playing regularly with these types of club they might consider wearing them."

One might argue that if driver impact sound really can damage hearing that there should be a higher-than-normal incidence of hearing loss among old professional golfers. But remember: Most old golfers still around didn't play these modern drivers. They played persimmon drivers.

If there is a history of hearing loss in your family, or you have an underlying condition that can result in hearing loss, talk to your doctor about it. Or just go ahead and use ear plugs. Better safe than sorry, right?

Photo credit: "File:Teeing off at Germanna Annual Golf Tourney (7947546124).jpg" by Germanna CC is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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