Have you ever lost your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) Suddenly, your morning jog is a million times more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And your virtual meetings are suffering from bad audio quality.
Sometimes, you don’t grasp how valuable something is until you have to live without it (yes, we are not being subtle around here today).
So when you finally find or buy a working pair of earbuds, you’re thankful. Now your life is full of perfectly clear and vibrant sound, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds are everywhere nowadays, and individuals utilize them for a lot more than only listening to their favorite music (though, naturally, they do that too).
Regrettably, in part because they’re so easy and so ubiquitous, earbuds present some considerable risks for your hearing. Your hearing may be at risk if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.
Why earbuds are unique
It used to be that if you wanted high-quality sound from a set of headphones, you’d have to use a bulky, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That isn’t necessarily the case now. Fabulous sound quality can be produced in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. They were popularized by smartphone manufacturers, who included a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smart device sold all through the 2010s (At present, you don’t find that so much).
These little earbuds (frequently they even include microphones) began showing up everywhere because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to music, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the primary ways to do that (whether you are on the go or not).
Earbuds are practical in a number of contexts because of their reliability, mobility, and convenience. Lots of individuals use them pretty much all of the time consequently. And that’s become somewhat of a problem.
It’s all vibrations
This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all essentially the same thing. They’re just air molecules being vibrated by waves of pressure. Your brain will then organize the vibrations into categories like “voice” or “music”.
Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. Inside of your ear are very small hairs called stereocilia that oscillate when subjected to sound. These are not huge vibrations, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what really recognizes these vibrations. Your brain makes sense of these vibrations after they are transformed into electrical signals by a nerve in your ear.
This is important because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing damage, it’s volume. Which means the risk is the same whether you’re listening to Death Metal or an NPR program.
The risks of earbud use
The danger of hearing damage is prevalent because of the appeal of earbuds. According to one study, over 1 billion young individuals are at risk of developing hearing loss across the globe.
On an individual level, when you utilize earbuds at high volume, you increase your risk of:
- Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
- Needing to use a hearing aid so that you can communicate with family and friends.
- Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
- Hearing loss contributing to mental decline and social isolation.
There’s some evidence to suggest that using earbuds might present greater risks than using regular headphones. The idea here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are convinced.
Besides, what’s more important is the volume, and any set of headphones is capable of delivering hazardous levels of sound.
It’s not simply volume, it’s duration, too
Maybe you think there’s a simple solution: I’ll just turn down the volume on my earbuds as I binge my new favorite show for 24 episodes straight. Well… that would be helpful. But it may not be the complete solution.
The reason is that it’s not just the volume that’s the problem, it’s the duration. Think about it like this: listening at top volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours could also damage your ears.
So here’s how you can be somewhat safer when you listen:
- Use the 80/90 rule: Listen at 80% volume for no more than 90 minutes. (Want more time? Reduce the volume.)
- Many smart devices let you reduce the max volume so you won’t even need to think about it.
- Give yourself lots of breaks. It’s best to take regular and extended breaks.
- If your ears start to experience pain or ringing, immediately stop listening.
- Enable volume alerts on your device. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Of course, then it’s your job to adjust your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
- It’s a good plan not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
Your ears can be stressed by utilizing headphones, especially earbuds. So try to cut your ears some slack. After all, sensorineural hearing loss doesn’t (typically) develop suddenly; it progresses slowly and over time. Which means, you may not even recognize it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.
There is no cure and no way to reverse sensorineural hearing loss
Usually, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is irreversible. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get destroyed by overexposure to loud sound, they can never recover.
The damage builds up slowly over time, and it normally starts as very limited in scope. That can make NIHL difficult to detect. You may think your hearing is perfectly fine, all the while it’s gradually getting worse and worse.
There is currently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. However, there are treatments created to offset and decrease some of the most considerable impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). But the total damage that’s being done, regrettably, is irreversible.
So the ideal strategy is prevention
That’s why so many hearing specialists put a significant focus on prevention. Here are some ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:
- Getting your hearing checked by us routinely is a good plan. We will be able to help you get assessed and track the overall health of your hearing.
- Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
- Some headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to utilize those. This will mean you won’t need to turn the volume quite so high so that you can hear your media clearly.
- Use multiple kinds of headphones. Simply put, switch from earbuds to other types of headphones now and then. Over-the-ear headphones can also be used sometimes.
- If you do have to go into an extremely loud environment, use hearing protection. Wear earplugs, for example.
- Reduce the amount of damage your ears are experiencing while you are not using earbuds. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your environment or avoiding overly loud situations.
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 need them.
So… are earbuds the enemy?
So does all this mean you should find your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Well, no. Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be expensive.
But your strategy may need to be changed if you’re listening to your earbuds constantly. These earbuds may be damaging your hearing and you may not even recognize it. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.
Step one is to control the volume and duration of your listening. But speaking with us about the state of your hearing is the next step.
Think you might have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get assessed now!