Two Interesting, Fast and Very Small Muscles Inside Our Skulls

Listening to some loud music from the 70’s at my high school reunion, Della leaned over and asked me if that could make you lose your hearing. The music was too loud for me to hear her well or give a detailed answer, so I signaled “wait”.

After the music stopped, it was like both of us were hard of hearing for a while before everything seemed to return to normal. I explained to her that noise exposure can certainly lead to permanent sensorineural hearing loss, but what we were going through in that moment was a temporary hearing loss, caused by two natural, muscular reflexes we have just to protect our eardrums from bursting. Two of the smallest muscles in the body, the stapedius and the tensor tympani muscles, tighten up when we’re exposed to loud noises in order to diminish the movement of the stapes (stirrup) bone and to tighten each eardrum, thereby decreasing the amplitude of vibration of our eardrums caused by sudden loud noises.

These muscular reflexes protect us from damage by loud music, but they’re too slow moving to have time to react to things like the sound of a gunshot. And in this country, that’s not the worst part of people shooting with guns.

In Swedish, people talk about a different, larger, group of muscles inside the skull that can react faster than the miniscule ones inside the inner ear. We, humorously, use the expression “use your brain muscles” for cerebral activity. But, sadly, even though we may have the capacity for quick thinking, when it comes to speeding bullets, they can travel at twice the speed of sound. So, by the time you hear the gunshot, the bullet has already reached its destination.

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