How to Prevent Hearing Loss When Using Headphones


Headphones.

They’re a staple in today’s society.

Coffee shops, libraries, public transportation, walking down the street – they’re everywhere. And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

The positives of using headphones are vast – you can hear every detail within the track or set you’re listening to, and eliminate many of the noises and distractions around you. Many people use headphones to focus, to take phone calls, to study various types of music and more.

Professionals often use headphones instead of speakers because headphones allow sound to move straight into your eardrums without being distorted when it moves directly from transducers.

The one dilemma that society faces, however, with the growing usage of headphones is that there are many dangers in using them regularly. For example, the volume that we listen to them with can be damaging if it’s at a high enough level. This can become detrimental over time and can even lead to hearing loss.

Hearing loss comes in different stages and levels – you can lose part of your hearing or lose it entirely.

Hearing loss can also affect your ability to hear musical details, meaning that it becomes basically pointless to use expensive, high-end headphones.

The goal with this piece is to demonstrate the importance of safe headphone usage and how to avoid hearing damage. Be sure to use your headphones responsibly – this is very important for any audiophile or even any regular headphone user.

The Basics: How The Ear Works

Let’s start with the key information about your body that you need to know when using headphones: how your ear works.

Sound travels through the ear canal to the eardrum to make it vibrate. In scientific terms: the sound moves through the external auditory canal to the tympanic membrane to create the vibration.

After that, the eardrum then moves the vibration to three bones: the malleus, incus, and stapes, all of which work to amplify the sound.

Stapes is the smallest bone in the human body and the last vibrating bone of the three. It’s attached to the Cochlea. The cochlea is the next step in the process: it takes the vibration and turns it into electrical signals that then travel to the brain. This comes with assistance from hair cells in your ear that is fluid and sound sensitive.

Hearing damage can occur very quickly based on the sound level at which you are listening. If you’re listening at a louder level, the hearing damage will happen faster.

OSHA Regulation 1910.95

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration – OSHA for short – has set rules for the level of sound you can listen to for periods of time. For example, they permit a workplace level of up to 90dB for an allotted 8-hour workday. You can also have a high sound level, but only for shorter periods of time.

How Loud Are Common Everyday Sounds?

Decibel Levels of Common Sounds

Consider your daily routine. You often wake up to loud noises, hear them as you’re making your way to class or work, or get startled by sudden movements.

People regularly experience loud, harmful noises – it happens all the time. But because they are only exposed to their noises for short periods of time, their hearing is not damaged.

However, be sure to keep in mind that hearing damage can build up over time. This may happen over the course of a few months or years, but because it is such a slow process you may not be able to tell the difference between how your hearing used to be and where it is now.

An example of this is a changing environment. Your hearing may become worse because there’s a buildup of noises in a certain environment you spend ample time in, but because that’s the environment you’re in, your brain has nothing else to compare it to. Thus, your brain doesn’t set off any alarms around it.

If you are afraid that your hearing has been impaired, visit your doctor. He or she will be able to measure what level of hearing damage you’ve done.

How Loud Are Common Musical Noises?

If you create, produce or listen to music, this is important information to keep in mind as you use headphones to do so.

Though musical instruments have a lower dB level, long-term exposure can still cause hearing damage. Attending a live concert, however, has a much higher dB rating and can cause hearing damage more quickly.   

Types of Hearing Damage

There are three particular types of hearing damage:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. Mixed hearing loss (combination of #1 and #2)

Conductive Hearing Loss

First, the basics: what is it?

Conductive hearing loss happens when problems arise with conducting sound waves at any point through the outer ear, eardrum or middle ear.

In more scientific terms, the hearing loss occurs when the conductive mechanism that typically functions by transferring sound vibrations through your ear stops functioning, either partly or fully.

Second, let’s think logically: how does one obtain it?

This form of hearing loss can happen in a number of scenarios including over listening to loud sounds, particular situations or disease.

Third, consider the effects. What will happen if you suffer from conductive hearing loss?

In short, you may hear any and all sound at a lower volume, even though your ear function maintains its regular level of productivity. It actually requires a higher energy in order to achieve the same intensity of sound.

With this form of hearing loss, you’ll still be able to hear all of the sound frequencies, but your ears have to work harder – they need more energy – in order to gather a signal and send it through your ear to the inner ear and eventually to your brain.

Lastly, one of the most important questions: is it fixable?

The answer: yes. Partly, at least.

Conductive hearing loss can actually be treated either in full or in part depending on the damage. Typically a combination of a hearing aid with a medical treatment can aid an individual when they’re dealing with this form of hearing loss.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

This form of hearing loss includes a combination of both neural and sensory hearing loss – hence the combination of the name.

Think about it this way:

Sensory + neural = sensorineural.

Easy.

Sensorineural hearing loss is different than a sensory and neural hearing impairment because the latter cannot simultaneously exist in both ears – it can only be in one. You can tell the difference between these two different types of hearing loss with an audiometric test.

So how can I end up with this type of hearing loss?

Typically a few of the main reasons for sensorineural hearing loss include damage in the auditory nerve or the inner ear.

Another potential situation is when damaged hair cells and a damaged spinal organ – also known as Corti – can no longer stimulate nerves, which can lead to this form of hearing loss. If your hearing nerves cannot send neuro chemical information as it is supposed to normally, you may end up with a neural hearing loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss can create a lower tolerance for loudness and even go as far s to make people incapable of hearing a particular frequency when it’s played.

But how can it be treated?

This is tricky since it’s harder to treat than a conductive hearing loss. Unfortunately, it’s also challenging to determine the causes of this form of hearing loss.

It’s also typically a more permanent form of hearing loss. It can be treated with hearing aids.

Mixed Hearing Loss

As the name suggests, this is a combination of the first two types of hearing loss discussed here: sensorineural and conductive.

Mixed hearing loss is, in fact, permanent.

In order to find a solution to the condition, you must seek professional medical help. You’ll need to treat the sound conductive mechanism and also address the neural and.or sensory damage via hearing aids.

What Are The Symptoms of Hearing Damage?

Let’s address one of the most significant need-to-knows within this article: how to figure out if you have hearing damage.

Remember that hearing damage isn’t necessarily permanent – only certain forms of hearing damage are. You may experience hearing damage for a short period of time after a particular situation where the damage is caused.

Think, for example, how your ears often ring after a concert. This is a mild form of hearing damage.

Medical treatment, when applied swiftly and properly, can also move forward the recovery process.

It’s also important to remember that almost everyone will deal with gradual hearing loss in their lifetime – there’s no way to get around that. The effects of this type of hearing loss can build up over time, but you may not necessarily notice them since it happens over such a long stretch of time.

Here are a few red flags that may signal hearing loss:

  • Ringing or buzzing in the ear, also known as tinnitus
  • Having trouble following other people while they are speaking and needing to ask them to slow their words when you’re in a loud area
  • Having trouble hearing and understanding particular words, due to the fact that you cannot hear certain frequencies

These red flags may happen when you are exposed to a loud noise for a long period of time. This could be after a conference, a show or festival while producing music with the volume on high and other similar situations.

Though hearing loss may be temporary after short times in loud environments, keep in mind that regular exposure to these types of environments can cause permanent damage.  

When Should I Visit A Doctor?

If you’re afraid that you are dealing with hearing loss, contact your medical provider before the damage gets worse.

Are your symptoms painfully bad? If you’re facing a severe symptom such as one of these, visit your doctor ASAP:

  • Drainage from your ears
  • Hearing loss from one or both of your ears
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both of your ears
  • Dizziness

How Do I Know if My Headphones Are Too Loud?

When using headphones, be wary of the volume level. It’s quite simple to turn up the volume to an unhealthy level, which may be damaging your hearing over time without you even realizing it.

You can tell if your headphones are too loud if you experience any of the red flags listed above. If you notice that one of them become relevant to your experience, take note and be sure to not reach that level of volume again.

Are you using your headphones in a quiet environment? If so, try this test to see if your headphones are too loud.

Bring the volume of your headphones up to the level you’d like to use them at. Then, hold them in front of you, extended in your hands.

Can you still hear the sound?

Well, bad news – it’s probably too loud. Adjust accordingly.

How Do I Pick The Proper Volume For My Headphones?

The loudness of a sound depends on the volume and frequency of that sound. The perception of music changes as the loudness level increases.

To put it simply, here’s one thing we can all agree on: listening to lower volumes is not as fun as listening to louder volumes. When we love a song, we want to make it louder. When we want to hear someone speak more clearly, we turn it up.

You can actually re-adjust the tone and adjust the amplitude spectrum when listening to a sound at a lower level to create an enjoyable sound. However, this option isn’t normally available to an everyday user and is mostly found in the production world.

If you have the ability to adjust the bass and treble, as well as the high and low frequencies, you can create an appealing sound at a lower level.

Here are a few situations where you can tell if your volume is at a healthy level:

  • When using open-back headphones:
    • Can you have a conversation with someone in your immediate area?
    • Can you hear people around you?

If yes to both of these questions, then your volume is at a decent level.

  • When using headphones in loud environments:
    • Do you catch yourself turning the volume up because the environment you’re in is noisy?
    • Do your ears hurt after doing so?

If yes to both of these, your sound is probably too loud. Try purchasing headphones that are made to silence your surroundings, like noise isolating earbuds or noise cancelling headphones.

  • When using headphones for professional usage:

Consider using an audio limiter, which will allow you to be wary about the volume level at which you’re using your headphones.

How Do I Use My Headphones Responsibly?

It’s simple: know that using your headphones improperly can wreck your hearing. Whether it’s temporary or permanent, hearing loss is something you want to avoid no matter what.

A few tips:

  • Be sure to lower the volume of the sounds you’re listening to or cut down on the amount of time you’re listening to loud sounds if you begin to experience the symptoms of hearing loss.
  • Be conscious of your environment and how loud it is. In turn, also be conscious of how much you’re adjusting your volume for that situation. Don’t turn it up just because the street is loud or the train is making too much noise.

Hearing loss is not something anyone wants to deal with. Be careful and safe with how you use your headphones and save yourself from learning that the hard way!


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