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Can smartphones cause hearing loss?

Contributed by , staff writer for Healthy Hearing |

When it comes to our electronic devices, our on-the-go lifestyles are increasingly demanding portability. From our computers to our phones to our music, we want to be able to take it with us. Yes, it is certainly convenient to have everything we need for business, entertainment or social networking right at our fingertips; but is all of that convenience damaging our hearing? Unfortunately some recent studies say yes.

Understanding the study

hearing loss and cell phones
New research shows a link 
between hearing loss and cell
phone usage. 

A recent Pew Internet Research poll indicates that 64 percent of adults in the U.S. and almost 25 percent of the world population owns a smartphone and the numbers are increasing every day. And for the first time, the number of adults in the U.S. that own a cell phone has exceeded 90 percent.

The problem is that the prevalence of smartphones, cell phones, headphones and earbuds is unloading a daily assault on our hearing, and for some of us the damage being inflicted today won’t be evident for years. Not only can the improper use of earbuds cause hearing loss, but even the use of smartphones without earbuds can permanently affect your hearing. Studies show that it’s not just loud volume we need to consider, but the electromagnetic waves emitted from the devices as well.

The link between hearing loss and cell phones

In a study done by the Department of Otolaryngology at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, researchers assessed and compared the changes to the central auditory pathway and the inner ear that resulted from exposure to the electromagnetic waves from mobile phones. Using a battery of tests, the hearing function of 125 people who had been regular cell phone users for at least one year was compared with the hearing function of 58 people who had never used cell phones. The results of the study showed those who were long-term cell phone users had significantly more hearing loss than the non-cell phone users.

But electromagnetic waves are only a small part of the problem. The potential damage to our hearing from loud music, much of which is now heard through the ubiquitous earbuds, is increasing every day. A recent report from the World Health Organization estimates more than one billion young people are at risk of permanent hearing loss, simply from listening to music that is too loud. "Anything where you're putting sound into the eardrum, that's something as a society that we need to take a closer look at," said Rex Banks, chief audiologist at the Canadian Hearing Society.

Headphones can accelerate risk

Noisy urban environments compound the risk of hearing damage. Quite often, loud music listened through headphones is used to try to mask city noise such as traffic, subways or construction. But instead of solving the problem, it just creates more problems; the majority of earbuds and headphones aren’t designed to block out ambient noise. And because headphones and earbuds don’t mask the external noise, most people are inclined to turn their music volume way up, past safe listening levels.

Another problem with low or mediocre-quality headphones is they are less effective in transmitting low-frequency bass; this causes the listener to crank up the volume to hear the music better. But when the music is turned up so that the low-frequency bass is clearer, the volume of high-frequency sounds is raised as well. And it is the high-frequency sounds that are most damaging to the cilia, the tiny hair-like structures that help carry sound waves to the brain. Once the cilia are damaged, they begin to die, and unfortunately they don’t regenerate.

Preventing hearing loss

So what is the solution? Higher quality earbuds or headphones that transmit the low-frequency bass more effectively are a good start. And noise cancelling headphones, though expensive, can be an effective solution in urban environments where loud noises are a problem.

Above all you want to avoid what is known as “volume creep," or the need to gradually increase the volume in order to maintain the same sensation you felt when you first started listening. When you start listening at a higher volume, the muscles in the ear contract, which then causes the movement of the tiny bones to be more limited. And if the movement of the tiny bones is limited, the transmission of sound vibrations is diminished. Thus you turn the volume up so you can hear better, and the vicious cycle begins.

Cell phones and smartphones aren’t going away, but there are a few things you can do to protect your hearing. Experts recommend keeping your cell phone away from your ear as much as possible by texting, using the speaker phone or using a Bluetooth headset. If you have to hold the phone up to your ear, keep the calls short. And instead of using a cell phone, use a landline if one happens to be available.

Bottom line? New phone technology can be a great thing, but educating yourself about its hearing dangers can go a long way toward protecting your hearing both now and in the future. In order to better understand your hearing or establish a baseline, find a hearing healthcare professional in your area to further discuss your options!

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