Headsets and earbuds are commonplace today. Everywhere you go – if you’re observant – you’ll see people with various forms of listening devices stuck to, over, and in their ears. One is rocking out to Spotify, another listening to a podcast, some are watching a Facebook video, there’s no end to it.
But, there is a downside to headsets, earphones, and earbuds. Because of them, approximately one out of five teens suffer from a completely preventable form of hearing loss… though most don’t even know it.
Let’s look at the basics of hearing problems. Chances are high you, or someone you love, is already afflicted. Hearing loss is the third most common physical condition in the United States.
Here’s what it is, how it works, and what you can do about it.
The Structure of the Ear
Sounds are an integral part of communication. Whether you’re on a call with your spouse, or are jarred to your senses by a honk from the car passing angrily by you as you try to cross the street without looking both ways.
The sense of hearing is mediated by the ear and its components: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. For an excellent diagram of the ear structure, see this graphic: The Ear.
The outer and middle ears conduct sound waves to the eardrum and into the inner ear. The inner ear makes use of these waves, translating them to vibrations which “move” hair cells in particular ways. This movement is transmitted to the brain and translated as sound.
Damage or blockage to the outer and middle ears may be corrected through surgery, but damage to the inner ear is harder to correct due to its minute scale and irreparability of the sensitive cells.
Types of Hearing Loss
The two main forms of hearing loss are Conductive and Sensorineural.
- Conductive hearing loss is usually congenital or pathological; the main characteristic of it is damage or malformation of the ear canal or middle ear structures. The ear canal or ear drum, for example, may be absent or open at birth, infected and filled with fluid, or blocked off by a tumor. These are largely unpreventable in nature and but may be treated with antibiotics, antifungals, or surgery.
- Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type. It is characterized by damage to the sensory and nervous components of the ear: the cochlear hair cells and the auditory nerve. These hair cells are very sensitive and the more of these that are damaged the less you would be able to hear. Though this may be congenital in nature, the majority of people suffer from a progressive and gradual deterioration of hearing due to loud noises.
According to the World Health Organization, the single, biggest, preventable cause of hearing loss is loud music.
Sound intensity (measured in decibels or dB), duration, and repetition of exposure are three noise factors which contribute to acquired sensorineural damage. The more intense a sound is, the less time one needs to acquire damage from it.
Sounds are considered unsafe at more 85 dB, which is as loud as heavy traffic, but this can be as low as 70 dB, an average TV audio, given prolonged or continuous exposure. Concerts and night club sound levels rise from 100 to 120 dB where the exposure needed to experience hearing loss would be just under one hour.
The sound of a 120 dB rock concert is just 5 dB below the pain level; any higher than this may cause instant and permanent ear damage.
According to the CDC, the permissible exposure times to different sound intensities is halved for every 3dB over 85dB.
Permissible Exposure Time
Busy city traffic
Headphones often play sound at 91-139 dBs straight into the ears – continuously throughout the day. Though it can be enjoyable to listen to music privately at any time, the stakes are immense when you realise the potential damage you’ve been doing to yourself.
Games and action movies with loud, popping noises would traumatise hair cells easier at the close range tiny speakers dole out, but even calming music may be detrimental at high levels. The 105 dB level is equivalent to holding a chainsaw at arm length, allowing you to damage your hearing within an hour and 15 minutes.
The recommendation from health professionals is to limit headphone or earphone usage to 60 minutes each day, though this may be more given lower decibels.
Dr. James E. Foy, a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, stresses that “..if you can’t hear anything going on around you when listening to headphones, the decibel level is too high.”
Another sign of your music being turned up too loud is if you experience a temporary threshold shift, where your hearing is muffled for a few minutes to a few days.
Other early signs of hearing loss are:
- Tinnitus, buzzing, or ringing of the ears
- A feeling that your ear is plugged
- Often asking people to repeat what they say
- Listening to audio in high volumes
- Having difficulty on your phone or at the movies
If you suspect you may have hearing loss, you can use one of the many applications and websites online as a starting ‘diagnosis.’ It would be better though, to get to an ENT soon to for an evaluation.
But for now, limiting your headphone volumes to 60% or 70%, wearing earplugs at concerts or loud venues, and switching to noise-cancelling headphones are a great way to start taking care of your ears properly.
The author wishes he would have known this years ago… Hearing is a good thing to have. For more info, follow @BoomAlive.