Prevent Hearing Loss From Headphones

Hearing Loss from Headphones: The Ultimate Guide (2021)

1.1 Billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss. The reason?

Unsafe use of personal audio devices which includes headphones and smartphones. The numbers are growing every day especially among the next-gen.

The conclusion of the recently concluded extensive study on Personal Music Players (PMPs) proves this fact:

The HUNT Cohort Study on Hearing Loss
The HUNT Cohort Study

But, don’t worry!

This extensive guide will be your one-stop solution to hearing loss from headphones. From cause to preventive measures, our guide has it all.

So, let’s dive right in:

Chapter 1: Truth About Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

According to a recent study by CDC, 40 million Americans show hearing damage from loud noise.

CDC on Hearing Loss
CDC on Hearing Loss

But there is much more to this study than what meets the eye.

This along with several other studies is indicating something far more serious for hearing health in today’s world.

And in this chapter, we will provide all the details about the subject in focus: Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL). This is important for everyone; from musicians to people working amidst industrial noise.

Plus, you get a personal viewpoint, right from the HearStrong Champion!

Let’s get started:

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: What You Need To Know?

To be specific and simple, Noise-Induced Hearing Loss is permanent damage to stereocilia, the tiny hair cells in your ears, from the exposure to loud sounds. These hair cells are sensitive, not replaceable, and do not regrow.

So once they are damaged, they cannot transmit electrical signals in the brain resulting in a hearing impedance.

Many recipients of NIHL can be jarred emotionally due to the ailment.

There are 2 ways in which NIHL can affect hearing:

Exposure to loud background noise or music for extended periods can gradually deteriorate your hearing.

Or a sudden exposure to a short high-intensity noise (such as a gunshot or jackhammer) which damages your hearing in one go.

(More on this in Chapter 2)

In both of these ways, loud noise overstimulates delicate hearing cells leading to permanent injury or death. Once died, these hearing cells cannot be restored in humans making the problem chronic and severe.

Who are affected by Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?

Now, the bitter truth is:

There is a lack of awareness, open debates, presentations, and public awareness about NIHL.

Hearing Loss patients experience an emotional jarred effect as we said earlier.

So self-awareness is the key.

With this, let us find out the specific groups of people who are most affected by hearing loss:

NIHL has no age barrier. It can happen to everyone from children to older adults.

The 2011-2012 CDC Study has shown that at least 10 Million American Adults under the age of 70 have experienced hearing loss in one or both of the ears.

The number goes to 40 million adults worldwide.

If you want to talk specifically about teens, then about 13 percent of them (aged 12 years or older) have shown signs of hearing loss in both years.

American Teen Hearing Loss
American Teen Hearing Loss

Ok, so what about occupational groups which are more vulnerable to hearing loss?

The first group is Musicians.

Musicians
Musicians

Rock musicians face NIHL as they “are exposed to high decibel ranges”. Symphonic musicians (that is classical music players) also face hearing impairment and that “the impairment might be ascribed to symphonic music”.

There are recommendations to protect hearing loss for musicians as released by NIOSH and NASM, but the situation on the ground continues to be challenging for our popular music artists.

Hearing Health Advisory to Musicians
Hearing Health Advisory to Musicians

Hearing protection and earplugs are recommended for musicians, but they come with their own set of limitations.

Many music artists believe that if they put protective gear (like earplugs), they will not be able to hear the music sounds clear. They feel that hearing protections can make their listening too quiet to hear important notes in music which is important for mixing and vocal recording.

Again, changing the environment in which the musician’s work can help musicians fight hearing loss. This includes adjusting the sound level of their speakers and adjusting the layout of a band or orchestra.

However, accomplishing these changes in the environment is not always possible. This can be because of the lack of scope to adjust or other similar factors.

Awareness programs and working with health care professionals can help musicians fight hearing loss from loud music.

Movies like this can also help spread awareness among musicians about this issue:

Movie on Hearing Loss
Movie on Hearing Loss

Movies can help start social conversations about musicians’ impact on NIHL.

Plus, hearing protection is accepted as your legitimate right in the courts as well:

Musician wins hearing loss case
Musician wins hearing loss case

Real-Life Example: Chris Goldscheider, a musician fought and won a case against Royal Opera House for damaging his hearing in the rehearsal of Die Walkure, the Wagner’s thunderous Opera. Consider this as your motivation to fight NIHC 🙂

Click here to tweet this!

However, despite being a serious issue, rates of hearing disorders in musicians is much lower than in this occupational group:

Second Group: Industrial Workers

Hearing Loss faced by professionals
Hearing Loss faced by professionals

Hearing loss in the workplace is very common. And the numbers are staggering.

More than 22 Million US workers are exposed to dangerous sound levels and millions more are exposed to hazardous metals and solvents that could lead to hearing ailments.

In total, occupational exposure to noise causes 16% of hearing loss cases in adults worldwide. Here is the list of occupations that face NIHL the most:

  • Mining (49% of male miners have experienced hearing loss by the age of 50)
  • Construction (58% of construction workers in the US face a significant abnormal hearing due to noise exposures at work)
  • Military (1.25 US veterans face hearing loss because of working in adverse conditions)
  • Transportations (Nine and 12.6% of truck drivers experience hearing deficiencies in the left and right ear respectively)
  • Agriculture (78% of US farmers believe they have hearing loss but only 4% use protective equipment)

Jennifer Gibson, the “HearStrong Champion” has personally shared her views on occupational noise exposure with us:

HearStrong Champion
HearStrong Champion

“I’ve been in many stores and the ones that are geared towards a younger crowd (ie: Garage, Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister, etc…) often have super loud music blaring over the speakers.

I spoke to many of the employees and the majority of them have complained of hearing loss and headaches. I brought a decibel device with me, and they were all over the threshold.

Even when I showed the disturbing fact to the employers, they claimed that it was “the law” to have music at that level or higher, and ordered by the clothing corporations to have it set that high.

Same thing with employees that work in loud restaurants or bars, they all suffered headaches and hearing loss as well.

I have told some of the employees to have a hearing test before working in those environments. And have it tested it again after they stop working there to determine if it’s permanent.

It’s an eye-opening experience for them to see the results and impact that their jobs have on their physical health.”

That sounds alarming.

But nothing can be more serious than this…

Here is the Biggest Culprit of Hearing Loss

The culprit of Hearing Loss
The culprit of Hearing Loss

And there is a reason why we call it, the biggest culprit.

Just imagine, occupational exposure to loud noise is a serious health hazard. Practical experiences and scientific data both suggest so.

But what if you invite hearing loss by yourself?

Enter: Recreational exposure to loud sound.

During the FIFA World Cup in 2010, noise levels created by fans reached a staggering 144dB, louder than a jet engine at takeoff.

Remember that the recent CDC study we told you about earlier?

That same study revealed that every 1 in 4 young US Adults is experiences hearing damage outside the workplace. These people in their 20s had good to excellent hearing but they are now facing a distinctive drop in their ability to hear “high-pitched sounds”.

CDC Hearing Loss Study
CDC Hearing Loss Study

What we knew earlier is that older people naturally have hearing loss due to biological reasons. But such increasing trends of NIHC among the next-gen is raising a serious alarm.

Again, restaurants are getting noisier and noisier in recent times risking both the visitors and the employees with the potential threat of hearing loss:

hearing loss from headphones

But apart from loud stadiums with fans beaming with cheers and noisy restaurants, there is another major reason for this hearing ailment.

And that is the excessive and indiscriminate use of portable devices like headphones.

But how can headphones lead to NIHL?

We will come to know in the next chapter:

Chapter 2: Here’s How Headphone Use Leads To Hearing Loss

Here, I will introduce you to Amanda.

Amanda
Amanda

Amanda enjoys listening to music through headphones. Metal bands, jazz, and DJ music drive her crazy like anything.

The other day, she was fully immersed in a three-hour-long concert by her favorite metal band from Norway. She was so thrilled with the music that she even forgot to have her dinner that day.

After listening to the whole concert over headphones, she called her friend Ishamel to talk about the show.

But she noticed something strange. She found it difficult to talk to her friend over the phone. There was a constant ringing in her ears and her friend’s voice sounded like a person from the other room.

What caused such a ringing sensation to Amanda after listening to the concert? We will find out in this chapter.

The Science Behind Human Hearing

To find the root of Amanda’s problem, let’s first understand how our ears perceive different sounds all around us.

If you through a pebble in a still pond, it creates ripples in the water, right? Similarly, any type of sound creates vibrations in the air around us.

Here is how you can put this as a definition:

Sound is created when displaced molecules vibrate through space“.

Sound vibrations are like a superman! They can travel through both solids and liquids.

Sound-Vibrations
Sound-Vibrations

And our ears? They are supporting amazing people like you and me! Human ears have evolved to evaluate vibrations in the air caused by sound waves.

Here the journey begins:

Air vibrations get a sweet entry into our ear canals and bounce off the eardrum.

(Well if you hear loud noise beyond the threshold limit, it will not be that sweet. But more on that later)

These air vibrations now take the help of an ossicular chain, a trio of bones inside your ear, and reach the cochlea. Now our guest, that is air vibrations caused by sound, transforms. From waves of air pressure, it becomes waves of cochlear fluid.

This transformation gives us the first perception of what the sound is.

The waves of cochlear fluid reach a tissue named basilar membrane which is lined with numerous delicate hair cells.

As the hair cells vibrate with the stereocilia on top of them, a special auditory signal is generated which our brain uses to identify the sound.

But remember one thing: these hair cells are very sensitive. And once eliminated, these cells don’t regrow in humans.

Ok. You have understood how we hear sounds around us. But our question remained unsolved. How did the loud concert music damage these delicate cells in Amanda’s ear?

Let’s find out here:

Here’s Why Your Ears Can Be Damaged Due to Headphones

ear pain
Ear Pain

Now, one thing is for sure:

Sound vibrations are truly a superman!

But you don’t want to fight against him like Batman, right?

This is because your hair cells are sensitive and they can get damaged mainly due to the following properties of sound:

The first is sound duration.

Your hair cells can incur injury due to repeated exposure to low-pressure sound for long periods. Amanda heard the concert music at a low volume, but she heard it for three hours straight on her headphone.

These extended hours of listening lead to swelling of hair cells’ supporting tissue and overwork the stereocilia on top of it.

As your hair cells swell up, they cannot vibrate with the accuracy and speed as required.

This makes your hearing muffled and you may get the ringing sensation like Amanda. Audiologists call this sensation “tinnitus”.

Hearing to a hairdryer for 8 consecutive hours can also cause this type of hearing loss, also known as “temporary threshold shift“. Each one of us may face this ailment at least once in our lifetime.

The next cause is sound volume.

noise
noise

You may have guessed it already. Louder the sound, the more the pressure of its air vibrations which can burst the eardrum and even dislocate the ossicular chain.

Everyone has their limit of hearing sound.

But exposure to sounds more than 120 decibels can instantly result in permanent hearing damage. Such high volume noise can blow out your hair cells causing irreversible damage.

This is because hair cells in humans don’t regrow like in fishes and birds.

Listening to a rock concert where the sound levels exceed 100dB can damage your hearing within 15 minutes.

Permanent Hearing Loss
Permanent Hearing Loss

Hair cells get overworked due to sudden exposure to loud sounds and generate reactive oxygen species, a dangerous molecule with unpaired electrons. These molecules steal electrons from nearby cells causing permanent damage to the inner ear.


Luckily in Amanda’s case, her hearing was restored in next day’s morning. She only experienced the temporary threshold shift the other night and easily talked with Ishamel the next day.

permanent damage
permanent damage

She consulted with a doctor who told her that one night of temporary threshold shift will not cause permanent hearing loss.

But she was warned not to listen to metal band music and play her favorite games through headphones for three hours straight.

She was also advised to avoid certain sounds beyond a certain range. We will come to know about them in the next chapter:

Download PDF version of this guide

Chapter 3: How Loud is Too Loud?

Amanda never knew that noises from even everyday activities like in fitness classes and events like movie theaters can reach dangerous sound levels.

Then, of course, the loud volume from personal audio devices like headphones and speakers is a threat to healthy hearing.

And there is one more catch: You may hear noises louder than people around you.

We will cover all of this in this chapter.

Let’s dive in:

Here’s How We Measure Common Noises From Our Daily Life

Sounds are all around us
Sounds are all around us

Sounds are all around us. We wake in the morning with the ringing of our alarm clocks and end our day with sweet music through our earphones.

But not all sounds fall under the category of “noise”.

“Noises” are unwanted sounds that can damage our hearing. The keyword here is: unwanted.

Remember the two ways through which we can have hearing loss?

Most of us will experience some sort of temporary threshold shift due to constant exposure to sound levels over 85 decibels or dB(A). Constant exposure is the key. Since these noises are so common in our day-to-day life, we barely notice them until they cause damage.

But sudden exposure to noise over 137 dB(A) can cause instant hearing loss. Permanently.

But how we will measure everyday noises to avoid damage?

The answer: Decibel scale.

The decibel scale measures the air pressure exerted by the noise on a logarithmic scale (based on the power of 10). The reason is simple:

Human ears’ response to sound levels is also logarithmic.

The logarithmic basis of the decibel scale means that the sound intensity (the amount of sound energy in a closed space) grows rapidly. Technically, exponentially.

This means that a sound at 100 dB(A) is one billion times more powerful than a sound at 10 dB(A).

One Billion Times!

With that being said, let’s find out the decibel levels of some common noises in our daily life:

And Now, The Loudness And Impact of Familiar Sounds and Noises

Know Your Noise
Know Your Noise

This table and graphic will help you understand the intensity and impact of some familiar noises in record time:

Common Sounds To Hear Sound Level in Decibels (in Decibels)Impact on Your Ear (after repeated exposure)
The rustling of Leaves, Normal Breathing10 No Impact
Soft Whisper25No Impact
Air Conditioner, Normal Conversation60No Impact
Dishwasher, Washing Machine, Vacuum Cleaner, Toilet Flushing70 No significant damage, but the noise is annoying
Noisy Restaurant, City Traffic (heard from inside a car), idling bulldozer80-85The noise is very annoying, can lead to stress
Leaf blowers, welder, Gas-powered lawnmowers90Hearing Damage is possible after 2 hours of continuous exposure
Sander, Motorcycle95Hearing Damage is possible after 50 minutes of continuous exposure
Sporting events (like football games and hockey playoffs), Handheld drill, car horn from 5 meters distance and approaching subway train100Hearing Loss is possible after 15 minutes of constant exposure
Chain saw the maximum sound level of headphones, and other audio devices, loud entertainment venues such as rock concerts and bars, a very loud TV, radio, or stereo. 105-110Hearing Loss is possible after 15 minutes of constant exposure
Riveter, barking in the ear, shouting115Hearing Loss is possible after 2 minutes of constant exposure
Jackhammer, standing near sirens, thunderclap from a nearby storm120-125Can cause ear injury and pain (from the inception)
Live Rock Band, Bell Riderz Block Blaster (Hand Toy recorded from 0 inches)130Can cause pain and ear injury (from the moment you hear)
Firecrackers, Fighter Jet Launch140-150Extreme pain
Shotgun blast160Immediate damage to the ear
Rocket Launch180Instant Deafness
Source: Pulsar Instruments

Even after having this chart, Amanda’s problem didn’t solve.

How will she understand the decibel levels of noises around her every day? She didn’t want that ringing sensation again.

So, her doctor prescribed her a noise dosimeter.

They are easy-to-wear personal sound exposure meters that are worn near your ear and reveal the duration and amount of decibel levels one has been exposed to.

Now Amanda can monitor her noise exposure each day and can get hearing protection based on her exposure.

(More on this later)

Other similar technologies include Sound Level Meter (SLM) to measure noises from your daily life.

You can take advantage of free SLMs in smartphone apps to better protect your hearing. These mobile apps (For eg. the NIOSH SLM app for iOS devices) can predict the maximum noise levels you can tolerate every day and suggest preventive measures.

Keep environment noise levels below 70 dB(A) over the 24-hours duration and you will just be fine. Avoid annoying noises as listed above for longer durations.

But what if you are hearing sounds louder than other people around you?

A Unique Case Point: You Are Hearing It Louder

hearing loss from headphones

Along with Amanda, you now know about the decibel levels of some common noises familiar and around us.

Using Noise Dosimeter and SLMs, you can easily monitor your noise exposure to hear it safely.

So everything seems alright, right?

Until you start hearing certain sounds at unbearably loud intensity although your friends and family barely seem to notice them.

This can accompany a ringing sensation in your ear. You know it already. It’s called tinnitus.

Hmm… So what is this fuss all about?

It’s a hearing disorder known as Hyperacusis. It is commonly known as noise sensitivity.

(Here is why it is so serious!)

Let me explain it further:

We have already discussed that the intensity of sound depends on the energy it inhibits creating vibrations in the air. It is measured in decibels (dB). The list of sound intensity of everyday noises is given in the table above.

But remember, the loudness of sound is not necessarily equal to its intensity. It depends on how you perceive the sounds around you. How you perceive is the key.

How we perceive sound
How we perceive sound

Your perception of audible sounds gets affected by the environment you are in.

The same sound which seems loud like that of a washing machine seems barely noticeable if your house is beside a street corner with heavy traffic although the intensity of both sounds is the same.

In simple terms:

How loud a noise depends on where you hear and not what you hear.

So, if we live beside a road with heavy traffic or near a railway station, we are constantly exposed to loud sounds.

Hence, even if you go to a quiet place away from traffic, you hear common sounds (like a running faucet or a washing machine) louder than others. This health condition can take the form of disorder due to constant exposure leading to Hyperacusis.

Here are some of its common causes:

  • Depression (Not a random feeling of sadness but a chronic condition of loss of interest which cuts you off from the outer world)
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Disorder causing unreal and extreme tiredness)
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Migraine Headaches
  • Autism (Very common in children. 1 in every 54 US children aged 8 years or above is reported to have autism as per 2016 data)

Apart from these chronic disorders, even exposure to a loud gunshot or an injury to your head can also lead to noise sensitivity.

This is what Gael Hannan, Author, “The Way I Hear It: A Life With Hearing Loss” has to say Hyperacusis:

Gael Hannnan Twitter Profile
Gael Hannan Twitter Profile

“It’s an area that still stumps audiologist(s) and it so far can NOT be reversed.”

Still, you can take the help of sound therapy where you need to wear some special earpieces to reduce anxiety and improve hearing:

Beat-Anxiety-with-Therapy
Beat-Anxiety-with-Therapy

Doctors also recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to reduce anxiety-related disorders leading to the problem.


For Amanda, Hyperacusis, or whatever it is called, doesn’t matter much.

Her problem was related to her hearing inability after listening to concert music over headphones. Such threshold shifts are very common.

Whereas noise sensitivity affects only 1 in 50,000 people. The cases of such ailment are very rare.

how-many-have-noise-sensitivity
how-many-have-noise-sensitivity

(Anyway, you can also check out this excellent resource on Hyperacusis for further reading)

Amanda’s concerns are different.

As a next-gen jazz lover, she loves to put her earbuds on to cut off from the natural world.

But are they safe than over-ears?

Earbuds vs Headphones
Earbuds vs Headphones

Chapter 4: Earbuds vs Headphones For Hearing Loss

Amanda is not alone. Going wireless is indeed the new trend among the next-gen. You listen to music in full privacy without any hassle.

But every good thing comes at a high cost.

Is the cool wireless earbuds more dangerous for hearing than the over-ear headphones?

We will find this out with expert opinions here.

The Truth About In-Ear Headphones

Recall what we have known earlier. Hearing damage depends on the loudness and duration of the sound.

So it doesn’t matter if you are using earbuds or headphones. If you love to hear the music at the maximum, your ears are not safe.

Having said that, there are a few concerns about listening with earbuds:

First, in-ears deliver sound into the ear canal directly without any leakage. Hence, the risk at loud volumes increases further.

Secondly, there is the vicious cycle of hearing loss. It goes something like this:

Due to the loud volume and deep penetration of earbuds, small hairs inside the membrane start to degrade. As a result, you miss out on low-frequencies in your favorite piece of music.

Now, you are like Amanda. A carefree jazz lover who cares only about her metal band members.

So you increase the volume of your earbud further and try to block external noise. This makes your hearing problem go from bad to worse.

Hence, in-ear headphones tempt users to increase the volume. And subsequently, trap in the threshold shift.

You barely notice any ailment before much of the damage is done. Your eardrums go through tremendous physical strain and tiny ear muscles develop listener’s fatigue due to repeated oscillations.

Compared to this, over-the-ear headphones create a buffering space between your music and the ear canal. This prevents your ears to come in direct exposure to loud sounds.

What Do The Experts Say on Earbuds?

Let’s get the experts to do the talking for this section.

First is Dr. Pauline Dinnauer, AuD. She is the Vice President of Audiological Care at Connect Hearing

 Dr. Pauline Dinnauer
Dr. Pauline Dinnauer

“Over-the-ear headphones are a much better choice. Not only do you not have to worry about funneling sound directly into your eardrums, but most over-the-ear headphones are also, as a general rule, more comfortable to wear than earbuds.”

She advises music lovers to keep the volume within the 60% range and use the “right” kind of headphones.

(More on this later)

Next, we come to Mr. Joy Victory, the Managing Director at Healthy Hearing.

Joy-Victory
Joy-Victory

“Outside-the-ear headphones are a better option, as unlike earbuds which deliver music directly into the ear, they provide somewhat of a buffering space between the music and the ear canal.”

He advocates using headphones that block out external noise along with the regular advice of keeping volume within the threshold limits.

Finally, let’s hear what Dr. Maria Wynens, Au. D. from Atlanta Hearing Doctor has to say:

Dr-Maria-Wynens
Dr-Maria-Wynens

“While both earbuds and headphones present the risk of high decibel levels and long exposure, earbuds are actually more likely to cause damage.”

So, here is the takeaway:

If possible, you should avoid using earbuds. They are more close to the eardrum and push you to crank the volume further.

For people who need to use earbuds for their low price or convenience, you should lower the volume and use the 60/60 rule for safe usage. Continue reading for the detailed safety measures.


But hey, headphones are not great either. Amanda knows this very well.

It is important to get the “right” kind of headphones that suits your need and allows you to keep the volume low.

And they should fit in your budget too.

So, what type of headphones are best for safe hearing?

Chapter 5: What Types of Headphones Are Safe?

noise cancelling headphones
Noise-canceling headphones

Here we discuss the most common type of headphones that are considered safe for hearing.

And we find out whether they are indeed good for safe hearing or not.

This will help you find the right type of headphones for music listening and jazz. Great for Amanda. Great for you.

Let’s dive right in:

Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Safe?

Short answer: Yes. They are available in both premium and budget-friendly options for all types of buyers.

Long answer: Well, the matter is a little bit complicated.

There is no doubt that noise-canceling headphones are made to deliver safe hearing to users. The ANC technology was invented to protect pilots from the loud noise of the plane engine.

ENT Experts like Dr. Weil advocate them for hearing health:

Dr.-Weil-on-Noise-Cancelling-Headphones
Dr.-Weil-on-Noise-Cancelling-Headphones

You will tremendously benefit from this personal experience by Ms. Hammond, a subject-expert and registered pharmacist:

As you know, these devices (noise-canceling headphones) do not make people “deaf” to their surroundings. They reduce or dampen or cut down on background sounds.

They do not actually cancel them. 

Yes, they work more on lower to mid frequencies because it is almost impossible to produce equal and opposite high-frequency waves.  On planes, I hear the screaming kids just fine. 

These things gave me a new lease on life in some very dark times.

I was able to hear a bit more in stereo – I lack words for better expressing myself. 

As the background noise was reduced, I could listen to soft music at a lower level and that quieted the brain, helped me to relax, and that reduced tinnitus.

I plug mine into the computer and I hear so much better on Zoom calls and presentations where people ask questions and as I said, listen to music or podcasts. 

(Don’t forget to read her comment about NC headphones causing vertigo)

There are 2 types of noise-canceling used in headphones:

Passive Noise Cancellation or PNC creates a physical seal over your ears so you hear less background sound like city traffic.

Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) works differently. It produces an opposing frequency sound electronically to cancel out the ambient noise around you.

So, if these headphones are built to eliminate noise, where lies the problem?

First concern: Ear Pressure.

ear pressure
ear pressure

This happens with ANC headphones. Such headphones cancel out low-frequency sounds, thereby increasing the air density inside your ears.

As a result, your inner ear vibrates less and you experience headaches, jaw pain, dizziness, and of course, pressure on your ears.

(In fact, the experience with ANC is very similar to taking off in a plane)

Some people don’t face any such symptoms at all as they become adept at the ANC. Others face symptoms only during extended usage.

The sad part is:

There is no cure for this headache symptom using ANC. But PNC has no such problem so you consider switching your headphones for safe hearing.

You can refer to this study (though skewed) on Wirecutter staffers about their experience with ANC headphones:

Wirecutter-Study-on-ANC
Wirecutter-Study-on-ANC

Here is an expert comment on this issue by Ms. Monique Hammond, a renowned registered Pharmacist:

The fact that people get vertigo and headaches could be related to the fit that is too tight, which also could explain the sense of increased pressure in the ears.

There might not be enough venting, which results in an “occlusion effect.”

Another question is if there was something physically wrong with their ears, such as an infection or water in the middle ear – cold, or allergy – or if they have an issue with the inner ear balance system. 

Also, some people become anxious or claustrophobic when devices are applied to their heads.  

It all depends on the circumstances… We have to try devices and see which ones work for us. 

Rightly said.

The second concern is the Dangers of the Outdoors.

using headphones out door
using headphones outdoor

As noise-canceling headphones are built to cut off external noise, you are more likely to use them amidst busy traffic and public places.

This closes our most important sense organ to recognize danger.

You fail to notice car horns, fire alarms, and other important alerts amidst the heavy traffic.

This exposes us to dangerous car accidents. More than 37 Million Americans have put themselves in danger by using headphones during outdoor activities:

hearing loss from headphones

The worst part?

The majority of people admit that the dangers of using headphones outdoors. 97% consider it dangerous to use headphones while driving while the admission numbers for cycling, running, and commuting on public transport goes to 94%, 88%, and 69% respectively.

Headphones usage outdoor
Headphones usage outdoor

So the best thing we can do is to stop using noise-canceling headphones while outdoors. We need the full attention of our senses for a lightning-quick response if anything goes wrong in a busy street or while driving, so precaution is the best cure.

Headphone manufacturers should also take advantage of sound recognition software like ai3™ created by Audio Analytic to help users remain alert to sounds like sirens, alarms, and car horns even while wearing ANC headphones. But this might increase of production cost of these headphones, reducing the profit margin.

Again, using noise-canceling headphones in super quiet places as a study hall or library can cause a ringing sensation or tinnitus in the ears as the ambient noise comes close to zero.

Here is the bottom-line:

PNC headphones are the best because they protect you from sudden loud noise and don’t cause any headaches. They are very useful for construction workers and pilots who need to work and communicate even amidst dangerous noise.

And never use noise-canceling headphones while you are outdoors. Keep your health ahead of your entertainment.

(But like Amanda if music is your life too, keep reading to find a better alternative)

Are Bone Conduction Headphones Safe?

bone conduction headphone
bone conduction headphone

Before we answer this question, let’s find out why manufacturers call it a “godsend device” to protect the hearing loss and the risks of using headphones outdoors.

Bone-conduction headphones work on an entirely different technology.

Most headphones use speakers or drivers to produce sound, which is sent through air vibrations into the inner ear. We have discussed this earlier.

But bone conduction devices send sound vibrations through the skull bones and the jaws to the cochlea from where it reaches the brain. It bypasses the eardrum altogether.

Just like how you can hear your chewing inside your head, you can hear music from these headphones inside the ear, not outside.

Bone conduction has been used to treat hearing loss for a long time but using this technology in headphones doesn’t necessarily make them best for hearing.

Here is why:

headache and dizziness
headache and dizziness

Just like their noise-canceling counterparts, bone conduction headphones can also cause headaches, dizziness, or vertigo as they usually rest on your temples. Intense sound vibrations leave a weird feeling on your cheekbones.

Again, they can put excessive pressure on your head if not worn properly.

Some people also experience skin irritation if these headphones are worn for extended periods. Pressure on the skin above your ears is also faced during long usage.

Finally, know one thing:

Hearing damage is caused when serious damage is inflicted to the cochlea in the inner ear:

Hearing-Loss-due-to-inner-ear-damage
Hearing-Loss-due-to-inner-ear-damage

So, bone conduction headphones are not 100% foolproof or a “Godsend” to eliminate hearing loss as claimed by the manufacturers. Don’t fall prey to the misleading ads which say otherwise.

Having said this, bone conduction headphones are best to listen to music outdoors. Your ears are free and you can be aware of your surroundings even when you are immersed in the music.

In this way, it is better than noise-canceling headphones.

Professionals like cyclists, runners, and even soldiers can benefit from bone conduction headphones as it helps to remain aware and still communicate in adverse conditions.

Patients who experience eardrum damage can use them to enjoy their favorite songs by bypassing sounds directly into the inner ear.

Again, you can easily wear these headphones with safety gear so that you don’t sacrifice your music while out on an errand.

Hence, your question is resolved:

If worn carefully and used in safe volume limits, bone conduction headphones can be very helpful to protect your ears, be aware of your environment and still enjoy your music.

And they serve your purpose better than the noise-canceling ones.

Before I end this discussion, all of you need to read this dissent from Ms. Monique Hammond, a renowned pharmacist with dozens of experience:

Monique tweet
Monique Hammond tweet

Bone conduction headphones outside – A double-edged sword


“You continue remaining aware of your surroundings even when you enjoy music.” True but how loud is it?

Yes, they leave the ears open, which helps maintain one’s awareness when walking outside. 

However, in noisy traffic situations, for instance, one can be sure that these phones are turned up plenty loud in order to hear the tunes over the noise.

You correctly warn about NOT doing that (Check #5 of the next chapter for details)

Yet, if you are not supposed to crank them up to hear over noise, why have them on in the first place, people may wonder.

As a result, the ears are bombarded via air conduction and bone conduction! 


Amanda is now getting impatient.

For so long I am promising definitive preventive measures against hearing loss. Specifically for a jazz lover like her.

I guess you must be getting impatient too.

Well, your wait is finally over!

Hearing Loss
Hearing Loss

Chapter 6: Prevent Hearing Loss From Headphones

Hearing loss lets you move away from normal life. Your overall well-being and experience of life get disturbed.

So, prevention is very critical for everyone.

And this chapter will provide you the expert tips to help prevent hearing loss from headphones.

(There is an awesome surprise for you as well)

Let’s get started:

#1: Lower the Volume

volume
volume

Seriously. This simple tip can lower your risks of hearing loss like anything.

Keep the headphone volume not more than 60 to 85 decibels for safe listening.

safe volume range for headphones
safe volume range for headphones

There are some simple techniques to keep your volume low (and still enjoy music):

Clean your headphones so that they seem loud even at low volumes.

And never increase volume to cut off external noise. In busy traffic or while driving, this mistake can prove to be fatal.

Check out signs of whether your headphones are too loud. If your friend sitting beside you can hear the music through the headphones, they are perhaps too loud.

(More on this later)

You can also set up a volume limit in your music device for safe hearing. Go to Settings > Music > Volume Limit to customize your volume for iPhones. Android users can find their volume similarly changing settings.

If this does not help, go and check the device manually.

#2: Apply the 60/60 rule

60/60 Rule in hearing loss
60/60 Rule in hearing loss

It’s indeed simple and definite for hearing loss prevention. Here is what you need to do:

Listen to music at 60% of the maximum volume for not more than 60 minutes a day.

(You can extend this up to 80% if you wish to listen in batches for not more than 90 minutes a day)

Rule-For-Safe-Hearing-
Rule-For-Safe-Hearing-

The logic here is simple. Recall the 2 causes of hearing loss:

Noise intensity and the duration of the sound.

And this rule tries to limit both these factors so that your ears are safe for the awesome tunes you like to enjoy every day.

If you use an MP3 player and belong to the EU, there is one more thing you can do:

Utilize their “smart volume” feature to listen within safe limits.

Always remember: Listen to it right to listen for long.

#3: Use Soundproof Earplugs, Take Breaks

take a break
take a break

Amanda got the temporary threshold limit after listening to her favorite metal band for 3-hours straight. Through her headphones, obviously.

Many of her friends love to enjoy rock concerts with physical presence for having a good time together.

So, to listen to it right, it is better to use protective gear like earmuffs or earplugs in such venues.

(Click Here To Tweet This Cool Advice Among Your Friends!)

Such devices can lower your decibel exposure by 15 to 35 decibels. They are widely available in popular music venues and don’t usually spoil your listening.

But remember, the effectiveness of an earplug depends on how well you have inserted it in the ear. So, read the instructions very carefully.

Earplugs are also helpful when you are using noisy equipment like power drills or lawnmowers. In this way, you can focus on the work and don’t get distracted by the noise.

And don’t forget to take a regular 10-minute break to give the much-needed rest to your ears.

#4: Take Hearing Tests

hearing test
hearing test

Often we hear people taking regular health check-ups for their teeth, eyes, blood pressure, diabetes (sugar), and so on.

But never for their ears.

Just like any other part of your body, your ears too need regular check-ups. This helps you get a baseline understanding of your hearing which is beneficial for a well-functioning auditory system.

I know what you will say: We don’t have access to audiologists and can’t bear their fees.

Then, you should know that there are numerous easy-to-use mobile apps (like Play It Down or SoundMeter+) for taking portable hearing tests anytime anywhere. They are developed by premier hearing organizations and are free of cost.

Check out this hearing health app developed by WHO to understand what I mean.

#5: Use “Right” Kind Of Headphones

Use Right Kind of Headphones
Use Right Kind of Headphones

We have discussed this in detail in the last chapter. “Right” kinds of headphones are the ones that match your need, come within your budget, and still give you good hearing protection.

And when it comes to the best headphone choice, noise-canceling headphones are a common piece of advice you will find across the web. But as we already know, this advice is vague.

You should use PNC headphones because they protect you from sudden exposure and don’t cause headaches. But bone conduction headphones can be very useful for all music lovers who want to immerse in music amidst heavy traffic.

The reason is simple. You continue remaining aware of your surroundings even when you enjoy music.

(Read this dissent for a different point of view)

But again, you should never use headphones while driving. Music systems inside your car are a safer option.

Be careful about the size before buying headphones. Proper fit is important for long-term use.

And always listen within safe limits 🙂

#6: Avoid Loud Noises

avoid noise
avoid noise

This advice needs no introduction. Refer to this table we gave earlier to know about the common noise levels around our daily life so that you avoid them easily.

It is important to prevent loud noises in your workplace as well. Talk to your HR Manager if you face loud noises at work, and he is obliged to take steps accordingly.

This can include providing you quieter equipment to work with or giving you hearing protection like earplugs.

Use them carefully and you will just be fine.

You can also use PNC headphones to avoid sudden exposure to loud noise.

#7: Let The Hearing Aids Come To The Rescue

hearing aids
hearing aids

Well, the myths say the opposite:

Hearing Aids amplify incoming sounds in your ears, so they damage your hearing just like loud noise does.

Now, this myth is not fully false. If you purchase hearing aids without the help of an audiologist and adjust it incorrectly, they may harm your hearing.

But correctly fitted hearing aids prevent further hearing loss. Here’s why:

When you are facing hearing loss, the auditory cortex of your brain slows down and starts struggling to understand incoming signals.

Enter: Hearing aids. They restore the activity of the auditory nerves eventually strengthening your hearing machinery in the brain.

For people facing tinnitus, they are simply a lifeline:

Hearing Aids solves tinnitus
Hearing Aids solves tinnitus

Amanda used to think that hearing aids are a gamechanger. But then she got this personal feedback (edited) from Monique Hammond, a renowned registered pharmacist:

Monique Hammond
Monique Hammond

Hearing aids can help but there is no guarantee that it would be a lifeline.
    
That said, how we all wish that this was true…

It all depends on the amount of loss and on what frequencies have been hit and how much. 

For me, there is no reduction or dampening. Hearing aids do not reach the frequencies that cause my 24/7 wall of perpetual high-pitched noise.

For those who get tinnitus after sound exposure, it is a serious warning sign.

Tinnitus is a phenomenally complex issue. In my book, I have 50 pages on Tinnitus alone.  The more damage one gets, the worse it becomes.

Like noise-induced hearing loss, there is so far no cure. Just ways to manage it.  

So better be safe than sorry. Practice healthy hearing tips mentioned above like your religion!

And Here Is Your Awesome Surprise!

Ok, so I promised you a surprise for this chapter.

Let me unbox it. It’s an infographic on how to prevent hearing from headphones:

Hearing loss infographics
Hearing loss infographics

(Don’t forget to share your feedback on this)


Finally, Amanda is happy as she knows just how she can prevent hearing loss even while enjoying her favorite music. She has disregarded earbuds and chose PNC headphones for her jazz songs.

Now, she is following the 60/60 rule religiously.

But I cannot let her go before this bonus lesson:

Chapter 7: Bonus Tips For Healthy Hearing

listening to music
listening to music

Well, if you are been with us for so long, you care your ears above everything else.

Let’s cement our hearing health awareness with these cool bonus tips.

(Plus, Amanda’s has a new story to share about her friend Anja)

Let’s start straightaway then:

Bonus Tip #1: Check If Your Headphones Are Too Loud

headphones too loud
headphones too loud

We discussed this in #1 measure to prevent hearing loss.

To ensure that you are listening within the 60 to the 85-decibel safe hearing range, you should perform this crucial check.

Here are some simple ways:

  • Take a hearing test or lookout for signs for hearing loss to break the vicious cycle and seek treatment. If you are always tempted to increase volume or find it difficult to hear at crowded venues, you may be facing a threshold shift like Amanda. Again symptoms such as a ringing sensation in your ears (also known as tinnitus) also mean that your hearing is in danger.
  • Your friend sitting beside you should not be able to hear the music played at your preferred limits. If he can hear the sound being played, they are perhaps too loud. You can also hold the headphones in front of you to check for loud noise yourself.
  • Carry out the ringing test. Here is what you need to do: In a quiet room put on the earplugs. Try to relax and focus on your hearing. You should be able to hear a slight ringing sound. This is your baseline level. Now, again do the ringing test after listening with headphones at your preferred volume. If the sensation is higher, your headphones do have a problem.

Bonus Tip #2: Clean Your Headphones For Better Listening

Clean Your Headphones
Clean Your Headphones

This is the simplest way you can use to listen to music even at safe volume limits.

You can use a small cloth, alcohol wipes, or cotton swabs to clean your device. Gently remove the outer earpads and use an alcohol wipe to clean them. As the air dries up, clean the crevices with a cotton swab.

Don’t forget to sanitize the mesh to remove any dirt or wax. Make sure that all the sections of the headphones are fully dry before you assemble them.

Finally, you should always keep your headphones in a clean and dry place after use.

Take care of your headphones to take care of your ears 🙂

Your friends will love this bonus tip. Tweet To Share It Now!

Bonus Tip #3: Avoid Headphones While Sleeping

sleeping with headphone
sleeping with headphone

Firstly, I am not against going to sleep while listening to music. Different types of music at your bedtime are proven to relax your body, slow down your heart rate and focus on your breathing.

It’s a great way to reduce stress throughout the day and help enjoy deep sleep. Your brain release happy brain chemicals like dopamine which makes you feel good. Insomnia and PTSD patients can benefit from bedtime music too:

Music and Sleep
Music and Sleep

But the problem lies in listening to bedtime music with headphones. They include:

  • While we sleep we tend to be lazy and may accidentally turn up the volume. We already know that listening to music for over 85 decibels more than 8 hours every day can lead to hearing loss.
  • Sleeping with earphones can buildup hard wax in your ears as the seal does not allow air circulation
  • If left ignored, this hardened wax can lead to a temporary threshold shift or even permanent hearing loss over time. Earbuds push the wax down the canal so never wear earbuds while sleeping. If you already have excessive wax, you need to consult an ENT specialist to clean your ear from unwanted wax.
ear infection
ear infection
  • Wired headphones can cause strangulation during sleep which may cut off your oxygen supply while you are in subconscious mode. Again, excessive use of headphones during sleep can lead to death of tissue cells impacting your hearing.
strangled by headphone
strangled by headphone

I know you will not get strangulated with wired headphones like this funny picture.

But my logic is simple. If there is even a 1% chance of danger while doing anything while sleeping, I will avoid it. In the end, we want to reduce stress during bedtime, not increase it.

Here are the best ways to enjoy music during sleep while safeguarding your ears:

  • Enjoy music on a portable or stereo speaker. You can play/pause, skip tracks or change the volume of the speaker from its remote control so that you don’t have to get up from your bed. Connect your speakers with your smartphone to stream music via Spotify.
use speaker
use speaker

(If you are like me and don’t want to incur extra cost, listen to music from your phone speakers. They can well serve your purpose without being too loud)

  • Alternatively, you can invest in a White Noise Machine to cut off background noise and create an ambient sound like a wind blowing through the trees or a waterfall. Research has shown that white noise can increase sleep time and reduce stress:
White-Noise-Increases-Sleep-Time
White-Noise-Increases-Sleep-Time

Conclusion: Here Is The Story That You Have Been Waiting For

Amanda is eager to share the story of her friend Anja. She is just like her. Jazz lover and dedicated fan of a Norwegian Metal Band.

And just like her, she faced the threshold shift too.

Play the video to know the details yourself:


So, here ends our ultimate guide on hearing loss from headphones.

hearing loss pdf
hearing loss PDF

Download PDF version of this guide

Now, I head over to you.

Which technique will you use to listen to it right? Are you going to apply the 60/60 rule or use earplugs in noisy environments?

Do tell me in the comments below.

(You can also offer suggestions to make this article more useful)

Amanda will love to hear your doubts on the topics we have covered here. A happy hearing to all of you 🙂

16 thoughts on “Hearing Loss from Headphones: The Ultimate Guide (2021)”

  1. It’s so nice to see awareness and education featuring hearing loss in normal, everyday settings. All of us are constantly being exposed to noise on a daily basis and many people are simply not aware of it. My mother had multiple health issues, including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and suffered from noise sensitivity, she had a hard time with specific sounds and even music which bothered her ears. I was born with a profound hearing loss due to Ruebella, and lost the rest of my residual hearing a few years ago from being given IV antibiotics during an emergency kidney surgery which was toxic, yet none of the medical staff asked my permission nor provided any warnings about it. Once I recovered from that surgery, both my mother and I realized something was seriously wrong with my hearing. It changed drastically after that experience. It wasn’t until I saw an ENT who ordered a series of tests that he finally told me the earth shattering news: I became deaf. It took me a very long time to come to terms with it. It meant getting stronger BTE’s and to seriously consider having surgery for a cochlear implant. At that time, I was terrified to go through that again. Losing my hearing turned my world upside down. All of my coping techniques that I grew up with and utilized everyday no longer worked. I felt like I was six years old again and starting over, learning how to communicate with people and finding alternative solutions since I could no longer use the phone or understand speech in a noisy environment. At that time, I became severely depressed and very isolated from the community. It completely changed my life. To this day, I’m still finding new ways of communicating with people, especially in the medical community since I recently had spinal surgery to fix a fracture in my lower back. Due to the pandemic, all of the doctors and nurses are required to wear full protective gear that covers their entire body, especially their faces. This was a nightmare scenario for me since I had been in the ER over a dozen times this year already due to severe pain. What worked was using an iPad or iPhone at the hospital with speech to text capabilities, such as AVA or Speechy. It was life saver for me since I could understand them and it made it much easier on the medical staff to ask me questions or keep me up to date on the procedures or medications they were giving me. The ER at my local hospital now provides an iPad for all patients with a disability like mine and have learned how to be more accessible as a result. The only way this was possible was due to how frustrated I became in understanding the medical staff, which led me to working with the hospital in terms of finding a solution that would benefit many patients like me in the long run. The more people that step up and become advocates, the more awareness we can spread and find workable solutions in situations like this. This article is a great step forward to learning more about hearing loss and how it affects all of our lives. Bravo!

    1. Hats off Jennifer, you stood strong and have helped so many people in your journey.

      Together we can defeat hearing loss through right information and awareness!

  2. Great article on NIHL! I learned a lot and will definitely be passing some of these tips along to people I know.

  3. Thank you Adarsh, for this article. It was interesting and informative, and your focus on hearing loss prevention is important. People will continue to use headphones, and as more awareness of hearing loss is provided, manufacturers and consumers will be looking for solutions that provide the best quality sound while protecting the ears that allow us to hear that sound. Well done!

  4. Thank you for raising awareness on the second most common reason for hearing loss worldwide: noise-induced hearing loss. This type of loss is preventable but it is also permanent – so far at least as research is ongoing. We have a lot of power of the sound levels that we create in our daily lives. And so, what do we chose to do about it? Noise-induced hearing loss becomes every day more a matter of often misguided choices and beliefs. Learn about it. Learn how to protect your ears and hearing. Nobody wants to see the day come when the music dies. hearing-loss-talk.com

  5. Wow, what an eye-opener! I knew concerts could be linked to hearing loss, but never knew about headphones. Also, from the article I learnt about what daily things can also link to hearing loss. Its making me wonder now if NIHL is what I’ve had from just before I turned 22. From a young age, up until maybe 16 or 18, I went to several concerts a year almost every year. I’m guilty of using headphones for prolonged periods and at max volume – this was due to escaping issues going on at home for many years. I’ve definitely had people shout right in my ears over the years. I’ve been exposed to thunderbolts, where one happened in my back garden, I’ve been exposed to gunshots. I also have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I had no idea it could all be linked so thank you very much for sharing this article with me.

  6. A fantastic guide, Adarsh! It’s great to have a resource with so much detail that I can recommend to people when they contact me for advice about safe headphone use.
    I had sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear which specialists felt could be due to Meniere’s disease, but I also wonder if listening to my music through earbuds on high volume as a teenager ultimately contributed to the damage. I guess I’ll never know.
    Before my hearing loss, I didn’t ever think to protect my ears, and frequently went to concerts and music festivals without hearing protection. I feel there really needs to be more education on the importance of protecting our hearing. For some reason, sight loss seems to be taken more seriously and there doesn’t seem to be much value put on our hearing. Thank you for raising awareness of what is a preventable type of hearing loss yet at the same time is, unfortunately, one of the most common.

  7. Thanks Adarsh, I found this really helpful and informative and I’m a doctor! I wish I had read it before I bought an expensive pair of bluetooth ear buds which gave me impacted wax, followed by tinnitus (which three attempts at microsuction by an audiologist made worse). I’ve decided the best option for me is to use bluetooth speakers when I can, and good quality headphones when I can’t. I wish you all the best in spreading this really important information!

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