Health and Wellness

Wearing Headphones: How Much Is Too Much?

By Ryan Spooner

With so many of us working from home, noise-cancelling has taken on a new level of importance. When your neighbour starts cutting their grass, your child sings “Let It Go” for the eighteenth time in a row, or you are just trying to get in the zone with some focus music - the noise-cancelling headphones go on. Add in Zoom meetings, and we are wearing our headphones more than usual.

We thought it was a good time to ask: how much time with headphones on is too much? Is that noise-cancelling power worth it?

Disclaimer: This is an advice column based on the science we have found in our research. If you are experiencing hearing problems or are concerned about your hearing, please talk to your doctor or a licensed audiologist.

The Science of Hearing & Headphone Usage

For those of us with children, roommates, or pets (all three?), headphones can be our best friend. They are there at work, join you on your run, play a podcast while you are preparing dinner, and end the day with you watching your favourite show on Netflix (yes, The Office again). Add that up, and you spend more time listening to your AirPods than your own thoughts.

Is all this time spent listening with earbuds or headphones causing damage to your hearing? If you aren’t careful, the answer is yes.

According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there is a significant increase in the prevalence of hearing loss in adolescents and young adults.

A 2010 Study from Australia found that listening to music through headphones is “a risk factor for acquired hearing loss”. This type of hearing loss is called noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

Why is this happening and are there ways to keep yourself safe? There is good news; not all headphone usage is bad. It’s all about volume and time.

Chainsaws and Earbuds: A Story of Volume & Exposure

When you put earbuds and a chainsaw side-by-side, one looks far more dangerous than the other. But, when it comes to hearing, they can both cause major damage without the proper precautions.

The primary danger of headphones is volume. Humans were not meant to listen to loud levels of sound so close to your ear for extended periods.

The physical damage to your ear happens to the cochlea, a fluid-filled chamber in your ear that contains many thousands of small “hairs.” These hairs vibrate. The louder the sound, the stronger the vibration. When you listen too loud, for too long, these hair cells lose their sensitivity to vibration and can be damaged. The cells can recover, but in some cases, they don’t, leading to lasting hearing loss. There is no cure for this loss.

Loud noises, like a chainsaw, cause damage much faster. For example, a power saw can cause damage in less than a minute of continuous exposure. On the other hand, a telephone dial tone can cause the same damage, but if you would have to listen to it for 25 hours straight!

Low volume isn’t enough to keep you safe. Headphones, like that dial tone, can cause damage at even a moderate volume. That is why volume AND duration are key for aural safety.

What You Can Do To Keep Your Ears Safe

Avoiding headphone-induced hearing damage isn’t too hard. Audiologists from The Hough Ear Institute recommend following these 3 rules to stay safe.

✓ Use Noise-Canceling Headphones

One good way to lower the volume on your devices and protect your ears is to use noise-cancelling headphones. By blocking out external sound, you can enjoy your music at a lower volume without having to compete with surrounding noises. Studies have found that earbuds encourage you to turn the volume up to compensate for background noise.

✓ Use Over-The-Ear Models

Audiologists frequently recommend using over-the-ear headphones instead of in-ear or earbud-style models. Over-the-ear headphones increase the distance between your eardrums and the speakers, lowering the chance for hearing loss.

✓ Limit Your Exposure - The 60/60 Rule

Here’s where volume and duration come together. Turn down the volume, and lessen listening time. The American Osteopathic Association recommends the 60/60 rule. That means listening at 60% of max volume, for no longer than 60 minutes at a time.

The Many Ways to Listen To Calm Radio

There are many types of headphones to choose from. We examined the pros and cons of every style of headphones. Take a few minutes to read it if you are in the market for new headphones.

There are a number of ways to listen to Calm Radio with headphones or through speakers. You can find our free online music channels on your iPhone, iPad, Android, Apple TV, Alexa, Roku, Sonos, Bluesound, Kindle and many other mobile apps.

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