It’s safe to say we’ve all been around someone who is listening to an mp3 music player with the volume turned up so loud that the extra sound seems to be leaking out of their heads and into the surrounding space. In addition to being annoying to everyone else in the area, the loud volume actually may be damaging the hearing of the person wearing the earphones.
But is it the style of earphones that are at fault? To figure that out, let’s start with the basics of how we hear.
How hearing works
When sound waves pass through the air and into your ear, they bump up against your eardrum which transfers the vibration into your middle ear. There, a series of tiny bones move against each other to amplify the sound and send it to the inner ear, where specialized, hair-like cells convert the vibrations into electrical impulses that are carried by the nerves into your brain. The brain interprets those signals to recognize the sounds that you hear. The Mayo Clinic has diagrams to help explain this process.
The volume problem
The ear is capable of hearing sounds ranging from very soft to very loud. This is due to the work of the hair-like cells inside the inner ear. If you compare those cells to a lush green lawn, loud noise is like someone walking across the grass. The blades bend down, but pop back up again. Continued loud noise (or music) is like someone walking repeatedly across the same path in the lawn.
Over time, the grass loses its ability to spring back up and eventually dies. In the same way, excessively loud sounds damage the hair cells in the ear, eventually killing them. These cells do not have the ability to heal themselves, or to grow back if they die. The result can be permanent hearing loss.
Are ear buds to blame?
When it comes to evaluating headsets, experts disagree about whether ear buds that slide into the ear canal are more harmful than headphones that rest against the outer ear. The bottom line is that both kinds of headsets are capable of producing enough volume to damage your hearing. However, the tendency of many listeners is to wear ear buds for longer times and to turn the volume up to higher levels with ear buds than other styles of headphones. Both of these actions increase the risk of hearing damage. Many people also don’t realize that ear buds are not able to block extraneous sound. So when listening to music in a noisy place, the tendency is to turn the volume up even higher to hear the music.
Tips to protect your hearing
The American Speech-Language Hearing Association suggests the following to protect your ears:
• Keep the volume down – if you are using an iPod, visit the Apple website to learn how to set volume limits on your iPod. Parents can lock these settings with a code to max out the volume at a safe level.
• Don’t listen for too long – experts recommend no more than an hour at a time, and more frequent breaks are even better. The louder the volume, the faster the sound can cause hearing damage.
• Trade in the ear buds – wearing headphones that fit over the ears can help isolate the wanted music from the background noise, which means you can enjoy your music at a lower volume. Headphones that fit over the ears do a better job than ear buds at blocking out noise.
Be aware of any ringing in your ears when you take off your headphones. Even if the ringing goes away soon after you stop listening, this is an early warning that your hearing is starting to be affected.