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Drills may take toll on dentists’ ability to hear

November 23rd, 2011 9:14 pm by Rex Barber

Drills may take toll on dentists’ ability to hear

Ever wondered how bad those high-speed dental drills are for your hearing?
East Tennessee State University audiology student Krisztina Bucsi Johnson did, so she began researching hearing loss among dentists due to constant exposure to the high-pitched squeal of those dreaded tools.
“I would like to determine if the dentists should use ear protection,” Johnson said of the purpose of her research.
She was a dental assistant for eight years and thought the drill sounded like a siren. Johnson thought that noise must affect hearing. So when her third year in the audiology program at ETSU came around and she needed a research project, Johnson already had a topic to investigate.
So far she has tested 17 dentists, but needs 20 for her results to be valid. Johnson would prefer to have at least 25 dentists participate in the study and will take as many as she can get.
She tests dentists’ hearing at the beginning of the day and again at the end of the day, after they have had time to operate drills. This method allows her to test before and after exposure to drill noise. She also is using special ear protection as a variable in the tests.
So far, Johnson has found dentists will have a temporary hearing loss of 10 dB from a 4,000 to 6,000 Hz (peek sound) drill.
“And there is a definite pattern of hearing; I call it dentist hearing,” Johnson said. “They go home, they sleep and their hearing is normal in the morning. But day after day it can become permanent. So it’s a real interesting pattern I’m seeing.”
She said her research also has implications for dental schools, because there can be up to 70 students operating drills at the same time in one classroom, which would be extremely loud.
“It’s not good for your hearing,” Johnson said.
Johnson said ear protection exists now that will only block out loud noises like drills but allow easy person-to-person communication. She was provided two such sets of ear protection for use in the study by a company that makes the devices, which can cost around $700 each.
While not complete, Johnson’s preliminary study results show hearing protection could help dentists retain their hearing, but they would have to use them.
“I’ve never heard about a dentist here in the area that uses ear protection,” Johnson said.
Her research has already received the attention of the National Hearing Conservation Association Scholarship Foundation, which gave her a $5,000 student research award.
Johnson said the prestigious award would allow her to expand her project and hopefully get more dentists involved in the study.
One of the dentists who participated in Johnson’s study was Dr. William Dyer, a Johnson City dentist who has practiced for about 30 years. He said he has experienced no hearing loss over the years, but recognized how constant exposure to drill and other dental office noise could be a concern.
“The instruments, the things that we use that create a lot of noise, are very close to our ears,” Dyer said. “And we are exposed for an extended period of time. I definitely think it’s a concern in general.”
Both Johnson and Dyer identified the suction tool in the dental office as another source of risky noise. In fact, Dyer said that instrument bothers him more than the drill.
“And that thing probably runs longer and more often than the drill does,” Dyer said.
Dyer said he was glad his hearing had not been adversely affected over the years, because Johnson did find some dentists who have hearing loss.
Johnson said genetics can play a factor in hearing loss, too.
Johnson would like to present her research at dental and audiology conferences to educate about potential hearing loss from dental drills.
She also wants to include more dentist office workers in future studies.
“If this program turns out good I would like to expand and use dental hygienists and dental assistants, because they’re affected too,” Johnson said.
Dentists between 30 and 65 years old who are actively practicing and who have good hearing can enroll in the study or obtain more information by sending emails to or by calling 418-1639.

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