I don't really want to be this aware of my own blood.
October 29, 2014 1:53 PM   Subscribe

I sometimes like to use earplugs, but I always end up just listening to my blood loudly pulsing around in my head. This is not ideal. Does anyone have recommendations for earplugs that actually make things quiet, instead of just replacing ambient noise with the noise of my heartbeat?

My work environment often has a lot of background noise from machines, people talking to each other, conversations happening in the hallway, etc. It's nothing crazy, but I'm an easily-distracted type and also, I think, somewhat more sensitive to background noise than most people. Thus, the noise sometimes makes it very hard for me to concentrate. Since there's not really a way to avoid the noise and I don't feel that the people around me are being unreasonably noisy under the circumstances, I sometimes resort to earplugs in order to help myself concentrate. (Headphones are also an option, but sometimes I really prefer silence rather than music or even white noise.)

Problem is, all the earplugs I've tried seem only to exchange the ambient environmental noise for the sound of of my blood pumping through the arteries around my ear canals. It's not so bad at first, but after a little while it starts to seem quite loud (presumably my brain is trying to compensate for the quiet by turning up the gain) and I have to take the plugs out as it becomes in itself an unpleasant and distracting noise.

Has anybody else had this problem, and found earplugs that didn't cause it for them? I think the issue may be exacerbated by the fact that my earholes are on the small side and so plugs tend to press pretty firmly against the walls of my ear canals. So far I've mostly just gone for the plugs with the highest available noise attenuation rating (i.e. those neon orange ones you can get in a big sack at Home Depot) but I'm starting to think that I may need something a little smaller, or squishier. Do you have any recommendations?

As a bonus, it would be nice to have plugs that allow the noise that does still reach my ear to come through relatively undistorted. I've gazed with interest upon the webpages for "high-fidelity earplugs" (these, for example) but they're comparatively expensive (albeit reusable), have poor noise attenuation compared to normal plugs, and I don't know that they wouldn't just cause the same problems that regular plugs cause. If anybody has any experience in that area I'd love to know about it.

Thanks very much in advance; your advice and recommendations are sincerely appreciated.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You might get this effect regardless of how you plug your ears if they're actually plugged. Have you tried using sleep headphones with white noise or similar? That's what I would recommend.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 2:20 PM on October 29, 2014

I had this problem with earplugs, the standard cheap squishy kind, which I needed to be able to sleep next to snoring spouse. I had given up on earplugs, and as I was about to toss the container I actually read the label and it suggested pulling your ear up, from the top, while inserting the plug because it straightens out the ear canal and the plug fits better. Voila, freaky annoying pumping blood noise gone, and earplugs also work better at blocking noise.
posted by AliceBlue at 2:22 PM on October 29, 2014 [12 favorites]

I've noticed a similar effect with my cheap active noise-cancelling ear-buds (Black Box c20). If I don't activate the active noise cancellation there is a deep pitched "rumble" which I imagine is caused by blood being pumped around, similar to what I get with earplugs. When I activate the noise cancellation the rumble (and much of the background noise) is replaced with a low volume white noise which is easy to get used to.

In a similar situation to you (loud office environment) I find that the ear-buds are not good enough by themselves to cancel out people talking loudly (without music), so I've thought about replacing the rubber "dome" part of the ear-buds with something custom made from foam, but I've not gotten around to it yet, as they're good enough for the subway as they are. But, it might be a way to go.

You might look into over-ear active noise cancellation - I tried a friend's Parrot Zik, and they were really efficient at making a cafe quiet. (Also heavy, too expensive and with not enough battery life)

(On preview: AliceBlue's suggestion is something I'll try for myself )
posted by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen at 2:25 PM on October 29, 2014

Why not over-ear ear muffs? They can have the same amount of protection as plugs. They're quite a bit more conspicuous looking though of course.
posted by zsazsa at 2:27 PM on October 29, 2014

Response by poster: I don't want to wear something over-ear because they are way too dorky-looking even for me (they would definitely attract comment, as I am not a factory worker, firearms instructor, or pilot) and because I'd have to tote them around. Apologies for not mentioning this in my original question, but I would sometimes like to use my earplugs for sleeping as well as for canceling work-related noise, and I sleep on my side so something over-the-ear would be hideously uncomfortable. (I am not willing to retrain myself to sleep on my back or stomach over this issue.)

Also, I am already using the "pull up the ear" method of insertion.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:33 PM on October 29, 2014

Since you have so many of them, have you tried trimming the earplugs so they're a bit smaller around and might fit your ear canal better? It would probably be easiest to squish them flat and cut off along the sides.

The other thing you might try is a different kind of plug. My mother refuses to use the foam ones and swears by the ones that are like balls of wax with fibers of some weird fabric in them. I don't know how else to describe them but I do know that you have a lot more flexibility in shaping and sizing the plug. They are weird but they work!

Good luck!
posted by danabanana at 3:46 PM on October 29, 2014

Best answer: My wife swears by Mack's Earplugs.. They sit farther out in the ear canal.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:57 PM on October 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have tried many many earplugs. All have had that effect on me. I have weirdly shaped ear canals, though!

(Personally, viewed hearing my head pulse as a feature , since it shuts off my anxious brain thoughts. Clearly, ymmv!)
posted by gregglind at 5:28 PM on October 29, 2014

Best answer: A few things (I am a doctorate student in Audiology but this is not audiological/medical advice):

Yes, as mentioned above, definitely make sure you are doing the Roll Pull Hold method. Roll the ear plug between your fingers until it is very small, reach around the back of the head and pull the pinna up and back, insert the ear plug and hold until it expands in the ear canal. The ear plug should be flush with the entry to the ear canal.

But if you are doing that...

The level of discomfort you have wearing them is a little unusual, yes, but not unheard of. Most people will experience a degree of Occlusion Effect when using ear plugs, but not so much that it is bothersome. (The occlusion effect occurs when you block the outer ear, causing a reverberation of bone conducted sounds, which amplifies sounds in the lower frequencies, typically less than 1000 Hz.) The occlusion effect is usually perceived as an increase in the volume of your voice, chewing, and sometimes your blood pumping. It does bother some people, so you aren't alone.

A few important questions -

-Do you have any tinnitus (sounds like ringing, rushing, or hearing your heartbeat) in your ears when not wearing ear plugs? If so, in one or both ears?

-Do you feel light headed at all when wearing ear plugs? (I only ask because it does happen occasionally that when something is inserted into someone's ear canal, depending on their head shape, the object can actually press against an artery, and occasionally cause someone to hear their pulse very loudly or even pass out).

-You say that you are generally pretty sensitive to noise. Is this always the case? Are sounds ever painful? Do you feel intolerant of background noise that most people ignore?

If no to all of those, you could definitely try a different ear plug. Your next option is, as you mention, the etymotic (or TRU has a similar one). I personally love these ear plugs, as they attenuate more or less evenly across frequencies. They have less attenuation (maybe 15 dB) as opposed to the foam plugs (which get maybe 25 dB), but if you aren't using them at like a rock concert or stadium then they will work fine. The decreasing dome size shape allows a broad spectrum of frequencies to be attenuated more or less evenly, as opposed to just sort of blocked, so you won't get that sort of bass-heavy, in the chest feeling you get with the very occluding foam plugs. I would absolutely give them a go.

Your next option would be custom plugs. They're fantastic, but they will cost you (certainly over $100, and up depending on how fancy you want to get). Westone offers a bunch of cool options.

Feel free to MeMail me with questions.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:08 PM on October 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Picked up some Mack's at the pharmacy, per Johnny Wallflower's suggestion. They seem to be doing the trick! I don't know if it's the fact that they sit outside the ear canal or just the fact that they have a bit less attenuation than the foam inserts, but they strike a great balance between noise dampening and the occlusion effect that Luto mentions. Nice one, Johnny!

To answer Luto's questions:

Yes, I do have some tinnitus, though it's normally only noticeable when things are very quiet. I have always had it, even as a child. It does become more noticeable when my ears are plugged, but that is not what is bothering me.

No, ear plugs do not make me feel lightheaded.

Yes, I think I am always more sensitive to noise than most people. It's not painful though, no. Background noise in particular is especially annoying to me, yes. I have always attributed this to a combination of my overall character (I am introverted, easily overstimulated, and generally prefer quiet contemplation rather than loud excitement) plus perhaps some hearing loss. I don't know why I would have hearing loss as I'm fairly young and I can't think of any lifestyle factors that would predispose me to hearing damage, but I have always assumed that I have some damage as I also often have to ask people to repeat themselves.

If I ever want to step up to a better noiseblocker, I'll get some Etys or Trus. With your recommendation Luto, I would feel more confident in making that modest investment.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:27 PM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have those ETY plugs, and they do not give me the everything inside of my head is much louder sort of effect that the foam plugs do. There are other brands of plugs with the fins and little handle for putting them in you can find at drugstores for less money than the ETYs.

You could try earmuffs over the outside of your ears. Some people like those better.
posted by yohko at 6:53 PM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might also like to know that I bought two pair of ETY plugs about 8 years ago. One of them is still in use, and I'm certain I've used them at least 300 times, probably more. I lost the other pair.

This has worked out cheaper than the foam plugs by far.

I sometimes wear the ETYs to cut down on annoying background noise rather than hearing damaging levels of background noise. I prefer them for this over the foam plugs, because in addition to that annoying effect you have noticed, the foam plugs also give me very loud footstep sounds when I walk. I don't even carry the foam plugs with me anymore.
posted by yohko at 7:03 PM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Roll the ear plug between your fingers until it is very small

Sometimes, when I have difficulty getting it in, I find twisting the earplug a little (while rolling) helps keep it small enough.
posted by Rash at 9:21 AM on October 30, 2014

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