Since the 1950’s, earbuds have always allowed us to enjoy our music wherever we go. Many of us enjoy using music to as a daily stress reliever, but few realize the dangers associated with the use of the tiny electronic devices.
In fact, it’s estimated that 5.2 million people between the ages of 6 to 19 in the U.S. alone have Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL), as well as 26 million adults between 20 and 69. To compound the problem, some studies indicate that the rate of children with NIHL may be as much as 30% higher than it was 25 years ago.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss is definitely not shrinking as a problem, and its rise seems to correlate with the widespread availability of MP3 players and music streaming services.
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How do Ears Work?
When a sound wave hits your ear, it travels through your ear canal and causes your eardrum, also known as the tympanic membrane, to vibrate. From there, the vibration is sent to 3 tiny bones: malleus, incus, and stapes. After traveling through those miniscule ossicles, the slight tremors reach the cochlea.
The cochlea has fluid that houses tiny hair like structures called cilia, which are connected to neurons which transfer the sound waves to your brain. Throughout this entire system there are several buffers, such as air in the ear canal, and the eardrum, which serves to help prevent damage from sound waves that are too intense.
Soft earbuds bypass the first buffer, injecting their sounds in very close proximity to your eardrum, which is why they are able to sound louder than the average pair of headphones.
Removing this first buffer, however, increases the risk of hearing damage as there is really very little that the ear can do to try to mitigate harmful sound waves, other than tightening the eardrum to reduce the force of the vibrations that are passed through.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep the volume low on your music source, or better yet, use a pair of over-the-ear headphones which allow a little more space between the source of the sound and your eardrums, promoting a more natural listening experience.
One of the worst things you can do to your delicate hearing is to try blocking out street noise or a noisy subway by turning up the volume of your favorite band. Such street noises can reach 70 decibels in volume, and considering the safety threshold for listening to music is only 15 decibels higher, it’s understandable why many decide to cross that threshold in order to enjoy their music.
However tempting it is to use a cheap $15 pair of earbuds though, it’s much better to go with a pair of noise cancelling headphones if they fit within your budget and portability constraints.
With the current technology, there are affordable options for quality headphones, including Bluetooth, noise-cancelling headphones that can be found online for $40 to $50. There’s no need to spring for the pricey Bose or Beats by Dre, however, you may find the quality is worth the investment.
Learn to Recognize Damage Thresholds
A common misperception is that in noisy environments, your ears adjust to the sound level and shift to accommodate where the damage occurs. While loud sounds may cease to bother you as much after a period of time, it’s important to recognize that damage thresholds are still the same.
Although there are defense mechanisms that your ear can employ to attempt to protect its delicate structures, like deploying ear wax or tightening the tympanic membrane, these are limited.
If damage occurs to the tiny hair-like structures known as cilia, which transfer sound waves to neurons that carry the electronic message to your brain, they do not regenerate and whatever hearing loss occurs is very difficult to reverse.
What is the 60/60 Rule?
One of the most important rules to understand when listening to music is the 60/60 rule. This rule states that when listening to music, it’s best not to exceed 60% volume or 60 minutes of play time.
If you’re unable to enjoy your music at or around 60% volume even in a moderately quiet environment, you may want to check with a doctor or other medical specialist and have your hearing examined.
While a simple search on the internet will yield all types of baseline tests you can try at home to judge your hearing, its best to consult with a professional, as these “tests” are often subjective to a variety of other factors, including your environment.
As for the other half of the 60/60 rule, knowing when to take a break is also important to hearing safety. Human ears are extremely sensitive, and after a barrage of noise such as music or traffic for an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to give them a rest.
To give you an adequate picture of just how sensitive our ears are, humans can detect the source of a sound within 1 degree of its location. Extended periods of noise however, can negatively influence this ability, which is why rest is important. Just as in the 60/60 rule, you should also avoid exceeding 60 minutes of constant music when possible.
What is a Safe Volume?
You should never exceed 85 decibels of volume, even when listening to the best jams. While your iPod, MP3 player or phone probably doesn’t have a decibel meter, just try to stay under 60% volume.
Additionally, a search on your phone’s app store will reveal apps available to help you judge whether your music output is safe. Decibel X and Too Noisy Pro are both available for Apple and Android, while Sound Meter is only available for Android.
Yet another obvious rule of thumb is that if others can hear your music, it’s much too loud, not to mention rude. An easy test you can perform in a quiet environment to see if the volume of your music is too loud is to take off your headphones and hold them at arm’s length away from you.
If you can still hear the music, they’re too loud. With your earbuds, it’s a little trickier, but if you can hear them from more than a foot or two away in a quiet environment, you may want to consider turning down the volume.
Another good indicator that your music is too loud is if you cannot hear normal conversation from 3 feet away, then your music is probably doing some damage. In short, loud music can be fun, but it’s good to be aware of your environment at the same time.
What to Do When You Work in a Noisy Environment
For those of you using music to combat a noisy workplace or commute, it may be a good idea to protect your hearing by investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Headphones such as these use a built in microphone to detect sound waves in your environment and then employ technology to produce opposite waves so they “cancel” before they reach your ear.
While not as portable or cost effective as earbuds, in the long run your ears will thank you. The cost might seem imposing, but if you’re not committed to buying name brand headphones, there are plenty of options.
In fact, the technology for sound cancelling headphones has been around since the 1950’s, so while name brand headphones may have the cutting edge, there are definitely other more cost effective options.
Important Tips To Remember
When you’re listening to music, there are a couple of important things to consider. While it might be tempting to push in your earbuds if they don’t fit your ears well or to try to block out your environment, doing so can damage the skin in your ear, substantially increasing the risk of an outer ear infection.
If you push far enough, you can even puncture your eardrum, which can take weeks to heal, in addition to beingquite painful. Additionally, pushing the earbud closer to the eardrum reduces what little buffer space there is between the tympanic membrane and the origin of the sound, increasing risk for hearing damage.
Another thing to watch out for is sharing earbuds with others. While it might be the friendly thing to do, the risk of ear infections is substantially increased by inserting foreign bacteria from someone else’s ear into yours, or vice versa.
Besides, do you really want their ear wax in your ears? Gross! If you do choose to be a good friend and share a pair of earbuds with your friend, ensure that you wash them off when they’re returned, regardless of how hygienic your friend is.
To sum this up, earbuds in and of themselves are not harmful, but it’s easy to exceed safe volumes with them. Remembering simple rules of thumb like the 60/60 rule can drastically improve your safety while enjoying your music.
As stated, the further away from your ear a sound originates, the more buffer space between it and your eardrum, so the next time you’re wanting to lower your stress level or drown out bothersome sounds, it might be wise to grab a pair of headphones.