Have you ever misplaced your earbuds? (Or, perhaps, accidentally left them in the pocket of a pullover that went through the washer and dryer?) All of a sudden, your morning jog is so much more boring. Your commute or train ride is dreary and dull. And the sound quality of your virtual meetings suffers substantially.
The old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” applies here.
So when you finally find or buy a working set of earbuds, you’re grateful. Now your world is full of completely clear and vibrant audio, including music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Earbuds have so many uses other than listening to music and a large percentage of people utilize them.
But, unfortunately, earbuds can present some substantial risks to your ears because so many people use them for so many listening activities. Your hearing could be in jeopardy 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 adopt a bulky, cumbersome set of over-the-ear cans (yes, “cans” is jargon for headphones). That isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Fabulous sound quality can be created in a really small space with contemporary earbuds. Back throughout the 2010s, smartphone manufacturers popularized these little devices by supplying a pair with every new smartphone purchase (Presently, you don’t find that as much).
These little earbuds (sometimes they even have microphones) started to show up everywhere because they were so high-quality and available. Whether you’re taking calls, listening to tunes, or watching Netflix, earbuds are one of the main 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 basically all of the time as a result. That’s where things get a little challenging.
It’s all vibrations
Essentially, phone calls, music, or podcasts are all the same. They’re just waves of vibrating air molecules. It’s your brain that does all the work of interpreting those vibrations, organizing one type of vibration into the “music” category and another into the “voice” category.
Your inner ear is the intermediary for this process. There are tiny hairs inside of your ear that oscillate when exposed to sound. These vibrations are minute, they’re tiny. These vibrations are recognized by your inner ear. At that point, 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 loss. So whether you’re listening to NPR or Death Metal, the risk is 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 danger of:
- Experiencing sensorineural hearing loss with repeated exposure.
- Going through social isolation or mental decline as a consequence of hearing loss.
- Advancing deafness caused by sensorineural hearing loss.
- Needing to use a hearing aid in order to communicate with family and friends.
There might be a greater risk with earbuds than conventional headphones, according to some evidence. The idea here is that the sound is funneled directly toward the more sensitive parts of your ear. But the jury’s still out on this, and not all audiologists are on board.
Besides, what’s more relevant is the volume, and any set of headphones is able to deliver dangerous levels of sound.
It’s not simply volume, it’s duration, too
You might be thinking, well, the solution is simple: While I’m binging all 24 episodes of my favorite streaming show, I’ll just lower the volume. Naturally, this would be a good idea. But there’s more to it than that.
This is because how long you listen is as important as how loud it is. Moderate volume for five hours can be equally as harmful as top volume for five minutes.
When you listen, here are a few ways to keep it safer:
- If you don’t want to think about it, you may even be capable of changing the maximum volume on your smart device.
- Be certain that your device has volume level alerts turned on. These warnings can inform you about when your listening volume gets a bit too high. Of course, then it’s up to you to lower your volume, but it’s better than nothing!
- If you’re listening at 80% volume, listen for a maximum of 90 minutes, and if you want to listen more turn down the volume.
- If your ears begin to experience pain or ringing, immediately quit listening.
- It’s a good idea not to go above 40% – 50% volume level.
- Take regular breaks. It’s best to take regular and extended breaks.
Earbuds specifically, 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 (typically) develop all of a sudden; it progresses slowly and over time. The majority of the time people don’t even detect that it’s occurring until it’s too late.
Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent
Typically, NHIL, or noise-related hearing loss, is permanent. When the stereocilia (small hair-like cells in your ears that detect sound) get damaged by too much exposure to loud sound, they can never recover.
The damage is scarcely noticeable, especially in the early stages, and develops gradually over time. NHIL can be difficult to identify as a result. It may be getting gradually worse, in the meantime, you believe it’s perfectly fine.
There is currently no cure or ability to reverse NIHL. However, there are treatments created to mitigate and reduce some of the most significant impacts of sensorineural hearing loss (the most popular of such treatments is a hearing aid). These treatments, however, are not able to reverse the damage that’s been done.
This means prevention is the best approach
This is why prevention is emphasized by so many hearing specialists. Here are several ways to keep listening to your earbuds while lowering your risk of hearing loss with good prevention routines:
- Use multiple kinds of headphones. That is, don’t wear earbuds all day every day. Over-the-ear headphones can also be sometimes used.
- Schedule regular visits with us to get your hearing tested. We will help identify the overall health of your hearing by having you screened.
- Limit the amount of damage your ears are encountering while you are not wearing earbuds. This could mean paying additional attention to the sound of your surroundings or avoiding overly loud scenarios.
- Many headphones and earbuds incorporate noise-canceling technology, try to use those. This will mean you won’t have to crank the volume quite so loud so that you can hear your media clearly.
- Use hearing protection if you’re going to be around loud noises. Wear earplugs, for example.
- Use volume-limiting apps on your phone and other devices.
You will be able to protect your sense of hearing for many years by taking steps to prevent hearing loss, particularly NHIL. And, if you do wind up needing treatment, like hearing aids, they will be more effective.
So… are earbuds the enemy?
Well…should I just toss my earbuds in the garbage? Well, no. Especially not if you have those Apple AirPods, those little gizmos are not cheap!
But it does mean that, if you’re listening to earbuds regularly, you might want to think about varying your strategy. You might not even realize that your hearing is being harmed by your earbuds. Your best defense, then, is being aware of the danger.
When you listen, limit the volume, that’s the first step. The second step is to speak with us about the state of your hearing today.
If you believe you might have damage because of overuse of earbuds, call us right away! We Can Help!