Do Headphones Increase Your Risk of Hearing Loss?
If you’re to believe the conventional wisdom provided by parents—and grandparents—everywhere, listening to music too loudly on a set of headphones or earbuds can cause you to lose your hearing. How much of this warning is fact and how much is a modern version of an old wives’ tale? To find out, let’s begin by exploring the effect loud noises have on your ears.
Connection Between Loud Noises and Hearing Damage
The human understanding of noise as a health and hearing loss hazard has been around for hundreds of years; in fact, the Industrial Revolution itself came with some of the first realizations that continuous exposure to machinery noise at high decibel levels could permanently damage hearing. As a result, hearing loss caused by loud noises was initially referred to as “Boilermakers Disease,” after a spate of severe hearing loss was observed in workers who manufactured steam engine boilers. In the years since, however, doctors began to recognize that exposure to loud noises can cause hearing damage in other people as well. Recreational or environmental noise, like loud music, appliances, and gunfire, can cause hearing damage as well. Loud sounds affect millions of tiny hairs in your inner ear, known as cochlear hairs. These hairs receive sound vibrations transmitted from your eardrum to a fluid located within the cochlea and then send them as electrical signals to the brain. When cochlear hairs are exposed to loud sounds with excessive vibrations, their ability to transmit these sound signals is impeded, and your mind decreases its sensitivity to the sounds around you.
Headphones and Hearing Loss
While the use of headphones prevents others around you from exposure to your music, audiobook, or other noisy entertainment, it increases your chances of hearing damage. In fact, in a 2011 study, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the use of headphones, earbuds, and other in-ear or on-ear listening devices has increased the prevalence of hearing loss in children and young adults. When you consider the 75% increase in headphone use from 1990 to 2005 as well as the design and function of headphones, it’s easy to see why over 50% of young adults worldwide are exposed to unsafe sound levels due to these devices. Headphones, unlike environmental sound, not only pinpoint sound waves to travel directly into your ears, they provide constant exposure to sound as well—and the constant noise can damage your hearing even if it doesn’t seem too loud. While an initial burst of sound may bend your cochlear hairs and temporarily shift your hearing sensitivity, lengthy, repeated exposures (like listening to music during your daily workout) can permanently affect your sensitivity threshold, resulting in permanent hearing loss. In short, the length of your exposure is just as important as how loud you set the volume. As a result, louder noises cause damage much more quickly than softer noises—but you’re not safe with softer sounds, as they can cause damage over lengthy exposures. For example, a rock concert can feature sounds as high as 113 decibels and cause hearing damage almost immediately, according to the CDC. However, the lower headphone output threshold of 75 decibels can still cause damage after a cumulative period of about 24 hours.
Five Ways to Avoid Hearing Loss When Using Headphones
Of course, 75 decibels is still well below the volume level many choose for their headphones. Without an accurate assessment of your particular headphones’ output, it’s difficult to determine just how much use will damage your hearing. Foregoing headphones altogether similarly isn’t an option for frequent users. Instead, make an effort to prevent hearing loss with these tips:
1. Reduce the volume. Your first step to protecting your hearing is the most obvious—turn down your volume. You should be able to listen to your music, audiobook, or other audio at a comfortable level of 80 decibels or lower for hours without risking hearing damage. By contrast, just a 20-decibel increase to 100 decibels (below the maximum for most earbud brands) can cause hearing damage in only 12 minutes.
2. Set a volume limit. Within your device’s settings menu, limit your device volume to 60% of the maximum or less, which should keep the decibel range well below immediate damage levels, and serve to protect your ears. Then, check to see if your headphones have a separate volume control to ensure the reading on your device is accurate.
3. Choose headphones instead of earbuds. In addition to volume and length of exposure, the actual distance your cochlear hairs are from a noise source can drastically impact hearing damage. Choose an over-the-ear or outside-the-ear set of headphones instead of in-ear earbuds to keep a more comfortable distance between the speakers and your cochlea.
4. Use noise-canceling headphones. If you find yourself always turning up your earbud volume to drown out exterior noise, you’re allowing environmental sound damage as well as sound damage from your headphones. Instead, try a set of noise-canceling headphones that eliminate external noise and let you listen to your preferred audio at a lower level and do what you can to eliminate excess noise from external devices like televisions, appliances, and the like.
5.Take a break from your headphones. Perhaps the simplest item on our list, reducing your headphone exposure, can provide you with the best protection for your ears. Reduce the number of times per day you use your headphones, and try not to use them for more than 60 minutes at a time at 60% volume (the 60-60 rule) to prevent prolonged exposure to loud sounds—take at least a five-minute break before continuing.
Do Headphones Increase Your Risk of Hearing Loss?
As it turns out, mom and grandma were right—listening to your headphones at an increased volume can temporarily reduce your sensitivity to noise. Over time, loud, excessive headphone usage can permanently affect your hearing. If you suspect you’ve already experienced hearing loss due to headphone use, make an appointment with a physician to determine whether your hearing is damaged. Fortunately, with help from an experienced audiologist, you can restore your ability to hear with an expertly fit hearing aid. Oklahoma Hearing Center offers a full range of hearing aids for all ages and needs. To learn more about our staff of licensed audiologists, our services, or our hearing aids, contact Oklahoma Hearing Center today.
https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/98-126/pdfs/98-126.pdf https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/186427 https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/top-10-tips-to-help-protect-your-hearing/ https://www.cnet.com/health/do-headphones-cause-hearing-loss/ https://www.who.int/pbd/deafness/activities/MLS_Brochure_English_lowres_for_web.pdf