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What do Neil Young, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend have in common, besides all being musicians? All of these musicians experienced – as a result of playing the music they love – permanent hearing loss.

When I treat musicians, I have to tell them a sad but unavoidable fact of life – the very music they love to play may be damaging their hearing. When a musician is exposed to loud music they can suffer from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) which produces ringing in the ears, sometimes referred to as tinnitus. With similar ongoing exposure permanent hearing loss can result.

The hearing loss can happen to any musician, whether they play in a rock band, in a symphony orchestra, in a chamber music group, or just play at home when rehearsing. Hearing loss can occur when exposed to any sound over 85 decibels (dB) in volume for prolonged lengths of time. While 85dB may sound like a high level of sound, even rehearsal situations can produce these levels. Rock musicians and classical alike are both exposed to excessive amplitude of sound; an unamplified violin reaches 103dB and an electric guitar produces 120dB. In fact, audiologists researching hearing loss in musicians have found that overexposure to sound while rehearsing adds up to more hours than they spend on stage performing.

Fortunately, there is something you can do to protect your hearing – invest in a pair of earplugs; not the cheap foam earplugs you find in drugstores, but high-quality musicians earplugs. Manufactures of ear protection today still use the original and proven design first invented by Etymotic Research over 20 years ago. What makes them better than the cheap foam earplugs is that they allow you to hear music and speech accurately, at all frequencies, just at lowered volumes.

Universal-fit musicians earplugs, starting at about $15 a pair, can be found at most stores that sell musical instruments. But for the musicians I see – whether they play professionally or just for fun – I recommend custom-molded musicians earplugs with Etymotic filters, because of the greater protection they provide. These will be more comfortable to wear for long periods of time, more effective at blocking undesirable levels of noise while allowing you to hear the music properly, and easier to clean and care for. Yes, they’re more expensive than the earplugs sold in music stores, but since hearing damage is irreversible, how much is your ability to hear the music you play worth to you?