Can Headphones Cause Hearing Damage?

by David on April 8, 2013

For those of you following my posts (you have my deep and abiding gratitude), you may recall that last week I insisted that I wouldn’t be completing the trifecta of vice by writing about Rock and Roll this week, and I intend to keep that promise – by blogging about a tangential topic: headphones and hearing damage.

Inspiration for this post is derived from years of my mother haranguing me about how listening to music all the time is going to deafen me, cause inner ear problems, raise my cholesterol, or help the communists win the war. (I might be mis-remembering some of those.) Interestingly, although one study did note a correlation between the use of portable music players and smoking habits among secondary education students, there seems to be a bit of controversy about the degree to which headphone usage contributes to hearing loss or other societal ills. However, the one thing that most everyone agrees that there is significant potential for hearing damage if your music is too loud for too long.

You hear that? That is the sound of a thousand nagging mothers rejoicing.

It’s all about the decibels, baby

So, how loud is too loud? Most of us are familiar with the decibel (dB) as a unit to represent sound intensity, but fewer might realize that decibels operate on a logarithmic scale. What does that mean? Basically, it means that an increase of ten decibels corresponds to a ten-fold increase in sound intensity, and it will sound twice as loud to your ears. An increase of twenty dB corresponds to a twenty-fold increase in sound intensity and will sound four times as loud to your ears, and so on. According to sources, the average refrigerator hums along at a pleasant 45 dB, while the average conversation takes place around 65 dB, meaning you talk about four times louder than the average refrigerator. Regulators place a low (basically zero) risk level for hearing loss at 75 dB for extended exposure periods and probable hearing risk of hearing loss at 85 dB or higher for extended periods of time.

What does this mean for mp3 jockeys? Well, the average mp3-player (outside of Europe, where regulations are stronger) can produce sweet beats at a maximum volume between 75 to 105 dB, depending on the make and model. Estimates for average mp3-player volume vary from study to study, but are generally in the range of 62 to 86 dB, meaning that depending on whom you ask, there is either very little potential risk or some potential risk. Either way, the risk appears to increase with time, suggesting a possible cumulative effect for hearing damage.

maybe sometimes I just want to blare Enya okay it’s how I relax
so what go away

Well, actually, uh, there are a few other important factors… Baby

It turns out that there are quite a few factors that impact your susceptibility to headphone-induced hearing damage. The type of headphones you use matters: ear buds can increase the intensity of your exposure by seven to nine dB since you cram them right in your ears, and you’re more likely to crank the volume higher since they don’t insulate against ambient noise as well as over-the-ear headphones. Your gender matters, epidemiologically speaking: college-age men are more likely to listen to their music at full blast than college-age women, which is intriguing, since Henderson et al. (2011) found an increase in the prevalence of hearing damage among teenage girls, but not teenage boys. Of course, how you slice up the available data matters, too, because Shargorododsky et al. (2010) found a statistical increase in hearing damage among both teenage girls and teenage boys using the same data set as Henderson et al (2011)! Of course, there may also be genetic, environmental, and toxicant-based factors at play here, but what they all are, and the extent of their various roles is incompletely known at present.

BE YE A FRIEND? BE YE A FOE? AYE, BRIGAND! WHAT ARE YE ON ABOUT?!?!

How to play it safe and continue to avoid talking to people on the bus

The available literature is kind of a mess, but the recurring theme is that it’s very possible to damage your hearing through extensive music appreciation, and that there is a strong need to communicate the potential risks of long-term exposure to high sound levels – especially to young people. To protect your ears, just remember to avoid sound exposures that are: too loud, too close, and last too long. And if you’re really worried about your hearing, Liang et al. (2011) found that sound-cancelling headphones can help block ambient noise, so you won’t have to turn the volume up so high.

So basically, moderation rules the day. Feel free to enjoy the sultry sounds of your favorite yodeler or Peter Gabriel, just remember to keep the volume down, and you can keep on groovin’ for many years to come.

Who wants to talk with these losers when I could be indulging in the poetic musings of AC/DC?

Rick Neitzel April 8, 2013 at 7:10 am

Great post! You’ve astutely avoided overemphasizing the maximum sound pressure levels which can be produced by MP3 players – a stance that the popular press would benefit from, as well. And your literature references and discussion of exposure limits are great!

Here are a couple of additional points to consider. First, while you correctly note that earbuds don’t block ambient sound well, and that over-the-ear headphones provide more attenuation than do earbuds, there are a number of insert earphones on the market (often advertised as “noise isolating” or “sound blocking”) that provide even better attenuation than over-the-ear headphones. As you note in your post, reducing ambient noise means you can enjoy the Bee Gees at an even lower level than you would otherwise. Second, and more importantly, I would encourage you to consider the importance of listening duration. Listening levels – which you’ve focused on almost exclusively here – are only half of the exposure equation. The other half is the duration of your exposure. Loud music for suitably short periods can be equally harmful to your ears as quieter music for longer periods. It’s more difficult to craft a message around controlling both exposure level and duration, but critical to make sure the listening public understands the potential risk of music-induced hearing loss.

Again, well done!!

David April 10, 2013 at 1:54 pm

I am so relieved that you liked the post! Thank you for your comments and insight into several important points that did not get enough emphasis in my writing.

One question I have for you: While I was doing research for this post, I came across some research (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2011.02.006, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2010.10.002, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.heares.2012.01.013) that connects nutrition and hearing damage, while other researchers (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2011.10.023) found this not to be the case. I was wondering if you have any insight into this area of research?

Thanks again!

Brandon McBride April 15, 2013 at 11:29 am

I did read an article recently about how certain foods can actually help prevent hearing loss. It was very interesting.

http://www.pae300.com/five-foods-that-prevent-hearing-loss/

It’s a shame I don’t like fish. Or dark chocolate.

David April 15, 2013 at 1:15 pm

An interesting article to be sure, I know I have seen some literature on the connections between antioxidants and hearing protection, but I haven’t seen anything on zinc or magnesium… I would have liked to have seen a few citations, but it’s certainly “food” for thought.

Angela April 15, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Thanks for the post. Enjoyed reading it! The bit about the data interpretation is very interesting. Thanks for drawing attention to it!

David April 17, 2013 at 9:15 pm

I’m glad you liked it, Angela! And, yes, data interpretation is one of the trickiest things in many scientific disciplines – especially large tracts of epidemiological data.

When you’ve got a huge mass of data about thousands or millions of people, how you divide those people into groups and categories becomes quite a challenge. The trouble is, most people (and characteristics of people) aren’t comfortably placed into little boxes which may then be compared to other boxes in a simple analysis, so you have to set up some arbitrary rules about how you’re going to categorize people on the fence – not comfortably in one category or another. This explains why different researchers can look at the same stack of epidemiological data and get very different results!

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