Are Dental Professionals at Risk of Hearing Loss?

As dentists, you take special care of your posture; you wear gloves to protect your skin and protective eyewear to shield your eyes.  What about your hearing? It has been recommended since as early as 1959 that dentists should protect their hearing.  The dental office is a noisy environment; high-speed handpieces, ultrasonic scalers and suctioning devices produce high levels of noise.  Dental offices are often designed and constructed using hard surfaces to allow easy cleaning for infection control purposes.  As a result, the noise is not absorbed but instead reverberated throughout the office and adjacent rooms .The noise generated from these types of equipment puts the dentists at risk for noise-induced hearing loss.  This type of hearing loss typically affects the inner ear that houses the cochlea.  The cochlea has numerous hair cells that can become damaged with prolonged exposure to noise or sudden bursts of high impact noise.  It is important to mention, that damage to cochlea hair cells cannot be reversed.

Hearing loss amongst dentists

To give you an idea of the noise levels emitted by dental equipment, bear in mind that noise levels over 80 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss.  The noise levels emitted from dental equipment range from 70dB to as high as 107dB.  There have been a number of studies to date; both local and abroad that impress upon the risk of hearing loss in dentists.  A study conducted in Stellenbosch found that 36% of dentists surveyed reported hearing loss and 31% experienced tinnitus (1).  A later study in 2012 found that the prevalence of hearing loss amongst dentists was 30% higher compared to general practitioners (2).

Dental Equipment Decibel levels
Piezoelectric ultrasonic scaler 107
High-speed handpiece 88-102
Auto-tuned magnetostrictive ultrasonic scaler 84-98
Suction:  slow-speed 77
Suction:  High-speed 75
Low-speed handpiece 70-74

Table 1. Noise levels emitted from dental equipment

Prevention

As mentioned earlier, noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible and cochlear hair cells cannot be regenerated.  Avoiding noise in the dental office is impossible as these specialised tools are critical to the profession.  It therefore seems that the logical action would be to protect the hearing from damaging noise.  There are numerous types of hearing protection available; some over-the-counter and others that are custom-made.  Custom-made hearing protection is the preferred type as it offers maximum protection from noise exposure.  It is specially designed to reduce levels of noise entering the ear canal whilst allowing you to hear speech through a filter.  These can be fitted by an audiologist who will take an impression (much like a dental impression) of the ear to allow for a perfect fit.

protec-ear

Above:  Custom-made hearing protector plugs (from Protec-ear, SA)

In addition, to noise at your clinic or practice, the world has become increasingly noisy.  Personal music players, concerts and sporting events at stadiums add to the burden of noise exposure.  Sports including, powerboating, shooting and car racing can all increase your risk of hearing loss.  It is important to be cognizant of the various environments that you find yourself in that can be detrimental to your hearing health.

Hearing helps us to communicate, and this communication connects us to each other.  Hearing loss in the dental profession is a serious concern.  The first step is to have your hearing acuity assessed by an audiologist and invest in good quality hearing protection (as they are far cheaper than hearing aids!).  The dental profession faces an increased risk of hearing loss; together with audiologists, the statistics be changed and the prevalence can be decreased.

  1. Sidley CG. Prevalence of tinnitus and hearing loss in South African dentists and an investigation into possible connections with noise levels and frequencies in the dental environment [unpublished thesis]. Stellenbosch, South Africa: University of Stellenbosch; 2004.
  2. Messano GA, Petti S. General dental practitioners and hearing impairment. J Dent 2012; 40:821-8.
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