Could Earbuds be Harming Your Ears?

Woman listening to ear buds in danger of hearing loss.

Have you ever left your Earbuds in your pocket and they ended up going through the laundry or maybe lost them altogether? All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. Your commute or bus ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers significantly.

Often, you don’t realize how valuable something is until you’ve lost it (yes, we are not being subtle around here today).

So when you finally find or purchase a working set of earbuds, you’re thankful. The world is suddenly dynamic again, full of music, podcasts, and crystal clear sound. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to tunes and a large percentage of people utilize them.

Regrettably, in part because they are so easy and so widely used, earbuds present some considerable risks for your hearing. Your hearing may be in danger if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.

Why earbuds are different

It used to be that if you wanted high-quality audio from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a heavy, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That’s all now changed. Fabulous sound quality can be produced in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. They were made popular by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with basically every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (funny enough, they’re pretty rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).

Partly because these sophisticated earbuds (with microphones, even) were so readily available, they began showing up all over the place. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to music, or watching movies, earbuds are one of the main ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).

It’s that mixture of convenience, mobility, and reliability that makes earbuds practical in a large number of contexts. Because of this, many consumers use them virtually all the time. And that’s become somewhat of an issue.

Vibrations are what it’s all about

This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all in essence the same thing. They’re just air molecules being moved by waves of pressure. Your brain will then organize the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.

In this endeavor, your brain receives a big assist from your inner ear. Inside of your ear are very small hairs called stereocilia that vibrate when exposed to sound. These are not large vibrations, they’re very small. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. At this stage, there’s a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical signals, and that’s what lets your brain figure it all out.

It’s not what type of sound but volume that results in hearing damage. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is exactly the same.

What are the dangers of using earbuds?

Because of the popularity of earbuds, the risk of hearing damage due to loud noise is fairly widespread. Across the globe, more than a billion people are at risk of developing hearing loss, according to one study.

On an individual level, when you use earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:

  • Going through social isolation or cognitive decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss resulting in deafness.
  • Continued subjection increasing the advancement of sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Not being capable of communicating with your family and friends without wearing a hearing aid.

There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds might present greater risks than using regular headphones. The reason might be that earbuds move sound right to the most sensitive parts of the ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.

Besides, what’s more significant is the volume, and any pair of headphones is able to deliver dangerous levels of sound.

It isn’t simply volume, it’s duration, too

You might be thinking, well, the solution is simple: I’ll just lower the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite program for 24 episodes straight. Obviously, this would be a good plan. But it might not be the complete answer.

The reason is that it’s not simply the volume that’s the issue, it’s the duration. Modest volume for five hours can be equally as harmful as max volume for five minutes.

So here’s how you can be somewhat safer when you listen:

  • If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
  • Take regular breaks. It’s best to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
  • If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a max of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
  • If you don’t want to think about it, you might even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
  • Make sure that your device has volume level warnings enabled. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your job to lower the volume.

Earbuds particularly, and headphones in general, can be kind of stressful for your ears. So give your ears a break. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (usually) happen all of a sudden; it progresses gradually and over time. Most of the time people don’t even detect that it’s happening until it’s too late.

There’s no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss

Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get destroyed by too much exposure to loud sound, they can never be restored.

The damage builds up slowly over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. NHIL can be hard to identify as a result. You might think your hearing is just fine, all the while it’s slowly getting worse and worse.

Sadly, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can minimize the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, are not able to counter the damage that’s been done.

So the ideal strategy is prevention

That’s why so many hearing specialists put a significant emphasis on prevention. Here are some ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:

  • Control the amount of damage your ears are encountering while you’re not wearing earbuds. This could mean paying extra attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud scenarios.
  • Wear hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Wear earplugs, for instance.
  • Use other kinds of headphones. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other kinds of headphones now and then. Try using over-the-ear headphones also.
  • Use volume-restricting apps on your phone and other devices.
  • Schedule routine visits with us to get your hearing checked. We will be capable of hearing you get screened and track the general health of your hearing.
  • Many headphones and earbuds include noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. This will mean you won’t need to turn the volume quite so high in order to hear your media clearly.

Preventing hearing loss, especially NIHL, can help you preserve your sense of hearing for years longer. It can also help make treatments such as hearing aids more effective when you do ultimately require them.

So… are earbuds the enemy?

So does all this mean you should grab your nearest set of earbuds and throw them in the trash? Not Exactly! Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are expensive!

But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds on a regular basis, you might want to consider altering your strategy. These earbuds could be damaging your hearing and you may not even realize it. Being aware of the danger, then, is your best defense against it.

When you listen, limit the volume, that’s the first step. But talking to us about the state of your hearing is the next step.

Think you may have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get tested now!

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

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