Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, unintentionally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the laundry?) All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. You have a dull and dreary train ride to work. And the audio quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.
Often, you don’t recognize how valuable something is until you’ve lost it (yes, we are not being discreet around here today).
So when you finally find or purchase a working pair of earbuds, you’re grateful. Now your life is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have a lot of uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people utilize them.
Unfortunately, in part because they are so easy and so common, earbuds present some significant risks for your ears. Your hearing might be in jeopardy if you’re using earbuds a lot every day.
Earbuds are different for several reasons
In previous years, you would need bulky, earmuff-style, headphones if you wanted a high-quality listening experience. All that has now changed. Modern earbuds can supply fantastic sound in a very small space. They were popularized by smartphone makers, who provided a shiny new pair of earbuds with pretty much every smartphone sold all through the 2010s (amusing enough, they’re rather rare nowadays when you buy a new phone).
In part because these high-quality earbuds (with microphones, even) were so easily accessible, they started showing up everywhere. 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 useful in quite a few contexts because of their reliability, portability, and convenience. Lots of people use them pretty much all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a little challenging.
It’s all vibrations
This is the thing: Music, podcasts, voice calls, they’re all in essence the same thing. They’re just waves of moving air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the heavy lifting of interpreting those vibrations, grouping one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.
Your inner ear is the mediator for this process. There are very small hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. Your inner ear is what actually identifies these vibrations. At that point, you have a nerve in your ear that converts those vibrations into electrical impulses, and that’s what allows your brain to figure it all out.
This is significant because it’s not music or drums that cause hearing damage, it’s volume. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is exactly the same.
The risks of earbud use
The risk 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 raise your risk of:
- Developing deafness due to sensorineural hearing loss.
- Hearing loss contributing to cognitive decline and social isolation.
- Needing to utilize a hearing aid in order to communicate with friends and loved ones.
- Developing sensorineural hearing loss with continued exposure.
There might be a greater risk with earbuds than traditional headphones, according to some evidence. The idea here is that the sound is directed toward the more sensitive components of your ear. Some audiologists believe this while others still aren’t sure.
Either way, volume is the biggest factor, and both kinds of headphones can create hazardous levels of that.
It’s not just volume, it’s duration, too
Maybe you think there’s an easy fix: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming program, I’ll simply lower the volume. Naturally, this would be a good plan. But it may not be the total answer.
This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Think about it like this: listening at max volume for five minutes will damage your ears. But listening at medium volume for five hours could also harm your ears.
When you listen, here are a few ways to keep it safer:
- Activate volume warnings on your device. If your listening volume goes too high, a notification will alert you. Once you hear this alert, it’s your task to lower the volume.
- Take frequent breaks. It’s best to take frequent and lengthy breaks.
- As a general rule of thumb, only listen to your media at 40-50% volume.
- Quit listening immediately if you notice ringing in your ears or your ears start to hurt.
- Some smart devices allow you to reduce the max volume so you won’t even have to think about it.
- If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn the volume down.
Earbuds particularly, and headphones generally, can be pretty stressful for your ears. So try to cut your ears some slack. Because sensorineural hearing loss usually happens slowly over time not suddenly. Which means, you may not even acknowledge it occurring, at least, not until it’s too late.
Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (or NIHL) is usually permanent. That’s because it’s sensorineural in nature (meaning, the cells in your ear become irreversibly damaged because of noise).
The damage is hardly noticeable, especially in the early stages, and progresses gradually over time. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. It might be getting slowly worse, in the meantime, you think it’s just fine.
Regrettably, NIHL can’t be cured or reversed. But strategies (hearing aids most notably) do exist that can mitigate the impact sensorineural hearing loss can have. These treatments, however, can’t reverse the damage that’s been done.
This means prevention is the best approach
This is why prevention is stressed by so many hearing specialists. Here are several ways to continue to listen to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention practices:
- Use earbuds and headphones that incorporate noise-canceling technology. With this function, you will be able to hear your media more clearly without having to turn it up quite so loud.
- Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
- When you’re not using your earbuds, limit the amount of noise damage your ears are subjected to. Avoid exceedingly loud settings whenever possible.
- Use other kinds of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Try utilizing over-the-ear headphones also.
- Make regular visits with us to have your hearing checked. We will help determine the general health of your hearing by having you screened.
- If you do have to go into an extremely noisy environment, utilize ear protection. Ear plugs, for instance, work quite well.
Preventing hearing loss, particularly NIHL, can help you safeguard your sense of hearing for years longer. And, if you do end up requiring treatment, such as hearing aids, they will be more effective.
So… are earbuds the enemy?
So does all this mean you should find your nearest pair of earbuds and chuck them in the trash? Not Exactly! Not at all! Brand-name earbuds can be costly.
But your approach could need to be modified if you’re listening to your earbuds regularly. These earbuds may be harming your hearing and you may not even recognize it. Your best defense, then, is knowing about the danger.
Step one is to moderate the volume and duration of your listening. Step two is to consult with us about the state of your hearing today.
Think you might have damaged your hearing with earbuds? We can help! Get assessed now!