Ear Defenders

Royal College Manchester's Occupational Therapist Rachel joins us a guest blogger to talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages of using ear defenders.

As an Occupational Therapist, I often get questions from parents or carers about using ear defenders to help people who are sensitive to noise. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer but I thought it might help to summarise the reasons why they might or might not be helpful. 

Ear defenders are often used to ‘block out’ noise for people who are auditory sensitive (sensitive to noise).  The first important thing to note is that ear defenders do not actually ‘block’ out noise; they reduce the noise levels and often muffle sounds but even the best ones can’t completely remove all noise.

So why use ear defenders? They’re relatively inexpensive and portable, and for some people they can make the difference between being able to cope with a noisy environment or not. If ear defenders are the only way someone can cope with going to a busy supermarket, seeing a football match or joining in with other activities they want to do, then go for it!

There are some disadvantages – for example, prolonged use might leave the skin around the ears red and uncomfortable – but the main problem I see is over-dependency. I often see children and young people going to school or college who keep their ear defenders on all day. It’s easy to become used to having ear defenders all the time which can cause more problems if you lose your pair, or forget to bring them out to you, and means that you miss out hearing quieter noises you enjoy, like listening to a piece of music. When we support people to only use ear defenders when they need them, they’re able to experience more of the world and learn more about these experiences.

I recommend that we limit the use of ear defenders only to the times when they’re needed. For some people that might be at predictable noisy times – lunch time in the canteen, for example, or when going somewhere busy like a football match. At other times, sounds like construction noise, fire alarms or corridors with a lot of activity might make them necessary. Because some of our students struggle to recognise when they need to use their ear defenders, we need to pay attention to their cues and might prompt them.

It can help to have a specific place where the ear defenders always go, whether that’s in a box on the windowsill where the student can see them or in their backpack so they can take charge of bringing them wherever they go, so students are reassured that their ear defenders are available whenever they need them and feel less anxious.

There is some evidence that background music can be used to block out noise. Constant classical music played either through earphones or speakers, or even just putting your fingers in your ears briefly when the noise is unbearable, are both potential coping strategies, used either instead of or as well as ear defenders. Your Occupational Therapist may offer other strategies or further assessment of sensory processing difficulties.

If you decide to use ear defenders, I recommend that you buy the best ones you can afford, make sure the padding next to the skin is soft, and use them only when they are needed.