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Headphones: When hearing danger is closer than you think

Contributed by | Thursday, August 13th, 2015

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It seems like everywhere you look, from the gym to the subway to the street, people are wearing headphones or earbuds connecting them to their own portable listening devices. Have we become a society of "musicophiles?" Not really. More so than ever before, people are using their headphones to listen to music as a means of blocking out the outside world, and that is coming at an unfortunate price.

According to the World Health Organization, 50 percent of young adults are exposed to potentially unsafe music levels from their portable devices. And the latest statistics on noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) are astounding; according to the CDC, in the U.S. alone 5.2 million people between the ages of 6 and 19 and 26 million adults between the ages of 20 and 69 have NIHL. It is a growing problem; studies suggest the rate of children with hearing loss is 30 percent higher than it was 25 years ago.

headphones and hearing loss
Headphones can do more harm
than good if not used properly!
Follow these precautions to 
keep your hearing in shape!

Though convenient, it seems that new technology could be to blame. Some of us remember the days when we popped one cassette tape into our Sony Walkman, listened to both sides, and that was that. But now iPods and other mp3 players allow us to have thousands of songs at our fingertips at all times, meaning listening time is increased. The increased storage plus the rise of streaming services like Pandora, Spotify and iTunes radio mean we are spending more and more time on our personal music devices.

Adding to the problem is that young people especially are using their devices as a means of relaxation, a way to tune out the noise of the outside world. But most headphones aren't built for that, so in order to "block out" ambient noise, the music needs to be cranked up to unsafe levels. The problem is that most earbuds that come bundled with mp3 players are of low quality, and not only do they not block ambient noise, they transmit the bass poorly. Both of these factors lead listeners to turn up the volume even more.

So how does the damage occur? In order to explain that, we need to look at the parts of the ear  vital to transmitting sound: the cilia. In each ear, there are about 18,000 of these tiny hair cells that transmit sound. Those microscopic hair cells are an integral part of the process that sends an electrical signal to the brain, which then translates to a recognizable sound. Loud music damages these hair cells, and that damage eventually causes them to die. Unfortunately the hair cells lack the capability to regenerate. In other words, once they are gone, they are gone for good.

Earbuds in particular are dangerous to hearing simply because of their design. They are essentially tiny speakers that sit in the ear, funneling music straight into the ear canal. Outside-the-ear headphones are a better option, as unlike earbuds which deliver music directly into the ear, they provide somewhat of a buffering space between the music and the ear canal. However — although headphones are a safer choice than earbuds when it comes to hearing — they are not without their drawbacks. Like earbuds, most headphones are of low or mediocre quality and do not transmit the bass efficiently. It is worth investing in better quality headphones to improve your listening experience and protect your hearing.

Two different kind of headphones are available which can not only help block out ambient noise, but can protect your hearing as well by allowing you to hear your music at safer levels. One option is noise cancelling headphones, which work by using inverse waves to cancel out the incoming sound. They work best at cancelling out low frequency sounds, like the hum of an engine or the rumble of traffic, but not as well as cancelling out higher frequency sounds like the sound of conversation. Another option is noise isolating headphones; they work a bit differently, by creating a seal around the ear that creates a physical barrier between the ear and the outside noise.

If you're not ready to shell out for expensive noise-cancelling or noise isolating headphones, it doesn't mean you have to stop listening to the music you enjoy. Whether using earbuds or headphones, there are other steps you can take to protect your hearing. For example, to ensure safe listening, experts recommend listening at a maximum of 85 decibels (dB) for no more than eight hours a day. You are most likely not measuring the sound output of your iPod with a decibel meter, so in lieu of that, the 60/60 rule is a good guideline: listen to your music for no more than 60 minutes at a time at no more than 60 percent of your iPod's maximum volume.

"The maximum output of an mp3 such as an iPod player can get up to 115 dB which can cause permanent hearing damage in as little as eight to 15 minutes," warns Dr. Sreekant Cherukari, otolaryngologist in Chicago. But if you go under your iPods settings, you can actually set it so the volume doesn't exceed safe listening levels. Again, 60 percent of maximum volume is recommended.

So don't worry, it's still possible so enjoy your music. Just keep it as far away from your ears as possible and keep the volume down to ensure healthy hearing for years to come.

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