The last 50 years have seen a revolution in the way the music is made, distributed, and consumed. I grew up listening to records, then cassettes, then CDs and now digital files and have watched speakers get smaller and smaller. The discovery of tiny, powerful magnets have meant that we can make powerful speakers smaller than the size of your fingernail. But there’s a problem that doctors have been increasingly picking up on. These tiny speakers put into headphones and earbuds are delivering often-damaging levels of sound directly into your ears and many doctors are already starting to see a wave of hearing loss as a result. What can you do to protect your hearing? Here are a few tips.
How Hearing Works
Your body has a delicate and complex apparatus it uses to hear sound. When airwaves carrying sound enter your ear, they push on a thin membrane called your eardrum that’s attached to a set of tiny bones. The air pressure flexes this membrane in and out, which pushes on the small bones. These bones convey those movements to a fluid-filled canal that’s lined with tiny nerve cells called hair cells. These cells pick up movements in the fluid caused by the tiny bones outside and translate them into sound for your brain.
Loud Noise Damages Hair Cells
High volume translates into big waves of air pressure shooting toward your ears. When they hit your eardrum, they cause big movements back and forth that get shuttled through the bones in your ear to the fluid canal. Too much fluid movement can damage and tear the delicate hair cells trying to pick up on sound. Since each cell is responsible for a specific part of your hearing, losing these cells means losing some of your hearing. Since they can’t regenerate, this loss is permanent.
Avoid Using Earbuds in Noisy Areas
Because of their small form factor, earbuds have become the main way people listen to music when they’re out and about. While these headphones can deliver great quality sound, they can also deliver damaging levels of noise. Since they’re pressed up close to the eardrum, dramatic shifts in sound level can push large changes in air pressure onto the eardrum, sometimes at concert-level volumes. This translates into high stress on the delicate nerve cells in the ear, eventually leading to damage.
On top of that, many people wear earbuds in noisy areas. Instead of turning the music off when the background noise gets too loud to hear, they push up the volume. Most hearing professionals say that 85 decibels (dB) is the safe limit. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, traffic noise is generally about 85dB and lawnmowers are about 90dB. Many earbuds today can shoot over 100dB. If you can hear your music over traffic, lawnmowers, roadwork, or other urban noise, your volume is too high.
Most music aficionados will recommend noise-cancelling headphones since they allow you to appreciate the entirety of the music without distractions. The other benefit here is that you won’t be tempted to turn the volume up to overcome background noise because it’s mostly filtered out. Over-the-ear headphones are still best in these situations because music can shift in volume dramatically, which can be damaging.
Constrain Your Listening Time
The best way to protect yourself from hearing loss is to keep your earbud or headphone time low overall. Your ears can tolerate loud noise levels but only for a short time before damage sets in. A good rule of thumb is no more than 60 minutes per day at 60 percent of the volume on your music player. If you want to keep listening after that, try to do so from a pair of speakers rather than a pair of headphones.
Get Yourself a Pair of Earplugs
Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where the sound volume is out of your control, like when you’re at a concert or a movie theater. Unfortunately, stuffing tissue paper in your ears does essentially nothing to protect your ears. I’ve found a pair of earplugs works well to bring the volume down. There are lots of different kinds available, from the foam ones you’ll find at the pharmacy that dampen all sounds to pricy musician’s earplugs that will preserve sound quality while keeping your ears safe. Using them can bring the noise to a comfortable level and help you enjoy a loud event. Throw a pair in your purse or bag so that you have them just in case.
If you think you might have damaged your hearing or are experiencing signs of hearing loss, talk to your doctor. He can set you up with a formal test to see if you have problems with your hearing and can talk about the best next steps from there.