Ever hear a ringing in your ears? Perhaps a faint hissing sound? You could be affected with tinnitus. And if you regularly turn up the volume on your ordinary headphones, you could be on your way to hearing a regular ringing in your ears.
But can noise-cancelling headphones be the culprit? Can they make tinnitus worse? Can they cause tinnitus? For all these pressing questions and more, keep reading to learn more about it and how you can protect your hearing for years to come while still enjoying the beauty of your favorite music with pristine sound quality.
What is tinnitus?
If you have ringing in the ears or the perception of some type of noise (like hissing), this is what is known as tinnitus. It’s fairly common, affecting between 15 and 20% of people. Most people refer to it as a condition, but it’s actually a symptom of an underlying conditions. Conditions that bring about this symptom are ear injuries, circulatory system disorders, or age-related hearing loss.
In a quiet room with no one else around, if you hear ringing in your ears or any constant noise when nothing should be making noise, you should speak to your doctor. Have your hearing checked and find out what the cause is for your tinnitus.
Can noise-cancelling headphones make tinnitus worse?
Some evidence exists online through the tales of others regarding active noise-cancelling headphones and the impact on tinnitus. There are no scientific reports at this time, but many people online seem happy to share their experiences. Among them, some people complain that they have the symptom of tinnitus after using ANC headphones for several months.
When they stop using the noise-cancelling headphones, the tinnitus disappeared. None of this is science-based, but there are enough people talking about it in groups and forums to make you wonder if there is any connection.
The human brain is a fascinating specimen though. It can always pick up some kind of background noise. Usually your ears adapt and you don’t really perceive a change. Your house might be quiet with everyone gone for the day and you’ll automatically tune out the low hum of the fridge in the kitchen or the air conditioning. But when you start using active noise-cancelling headphones, they are so effective at smoothing those sounds out that if you leave the ANC on without playing music, it gets disorienting. It’s why so many people feel dizzy when they first start using them.
To counter this, your brain releases a ringing sound to check your ears. Yes, it’s like a mini-sound-check for the concert in your head. When you wear those noise-cancelling headphones without music playing and the ANC switched on while sitting somewhere quiet, you will notice all those sounds in your home that you didn’t before, and they’ll feel almost distracting.
Can constantly using noise-cancelling headphones cause tinnitus in the first place?
Most of the times when tinnitus shows up, it’s because of being exposed to loud noises or some degree of hearing loss. So are your headphones the reason for it?
That’s definitely possible, especially if you listen to your music turned up way-loud every day. The longer and louder you listen to your music on headphones (whether it’s ordinary headphones or noise-cancelling ones), the more prone to hearing loss you’ll be.
Ask an audiologist and they’ll tell you it’s not the headphones or earbuds you’re using but the volume of the audio you’re listening to that does it. Loud volumes, even in short bursts, can do a world of damage on your hearing. If you have tinnitus, it’s likely the cause of playing your music far too loud for far too long. It doesn’t matter what type of headphones you use. They will all eventually damage your hearing if you don’t exercise proper caution when wearing them.
Keep reading and you’ll find out how to get the most out of your noise-cancelling headphones without causing hearing damage!
Too Much Exposure to Any Loud Noise Causes Hearing Loss
For years, tinnitus was much more common in older people, ages 55 and up, because as one ages, hearing loss is just par for the course. When hearing loss starts up, so too does tinnitus. Nowadays though with a culture of headphones all around us, younger people are exposing them to loud noises much more frequently which is leading to hearing loss in younger age brackets.
It’s not just the headphones either. The world for younger people is louder. Clubs are louder. Even aerobics classes at the gym are louder. The constant exposure to noise is doing our society in at an alarming rate. And when you’re blasting that noise into your ears at such high volumes, you can very possibly change the structure of your inner ear.
According to statistics from the American Osteopathic Association, one in every five teenagers suffers from some type of hearing loss, which is 30% greater than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. The World Health Organization (WHO) puts an estimate of 1.1 billion younger people for the risk of hearing loss due to listening to loud audio on their personal devices on a regular basis as well as attending loud and noisy events.
Audiologists keep reporting more frequency of visits from younger patients and cite headphones as one of the leading causes. Again though, it’s not the headphones themselves but how people are using them. In generations before, headphones weren’t as commonly used. And one of the things to remember is that with ordinary headphones, many people turn up the volume to compensate for the surrounding noises they don’t want to hear. This is why noise-cancelling headphones are a better choice because they allow you to enjoy the audio you want to hear without having to turn it up loud just to hear it over the surrounding din.
In a Swedish study among adolescents, it was found that wearing headphones and listening to audio at loud volumes resulted in poor hearing. Teens in the study that spent three hours or more listening through headphones were most likely to have tinnitus than those who didn’t listen as long.
Sometimes, tinnitus can be temporary when exposed to loud volumes during a shorter period, like when you attend a concert. It can also happen after listening on your headphones or through speakers too. It may die down after a while, but it still will cause permanent damage to the hair cells in your ears. These cells are what control your hearing ability and when they are damaged, they reduce your capacity for hearing. It’s not a sudden process though. Over time, these cells are destroyed and hearing loss becomes gradual. It’s not suddenly radio silence.
Currently, research is being conducted on how to regrow these hair cells in your ears. But even if they do come out with something, it’s better for you to focus on protecting your hearing, and you can do just that by using your noise-cancelling headphones at safe volumes.
When you limit the volume, length, and the frequency of listening to audio via headphones, you’ll protect your hearing and still enjoy the experience of your music. Noise exposure is contingent upon how long, how loud, and how often you listen. The WHO says it’s not safe to listen to sounds at 85 decibels more than 8 hours a day. This decibel level is around the same as city traffic. Turn it up to 100 decibels (like the volume at a rock concert) and damage to your hearing can happen in just 15 minutes of listening.
What do the experts recommend when it comes to noise-cancelling headphones (and other headphones too)? You should limit the time you wear them to no more than one hour at a time, taking an hour off in between to let your ears rest.
How to Avoid Common Headphone Mistakes
It doesn’t matter if you’re using regular headphones or earbuds or noise-cancelling versions. All headphones can cause hearing damage if you don’t use them properly. Whether they’re top of the line or cheap, it doesn’t matter. The following tips can help you preserve your hearing and enjoy listening through your headphones.
– Use noise-cancelling headphones in noisy environments
Noise-cancelling headphones can counter-balance the noise in your environment. This helps you to keep from turning up the volume louder and louder just to hear what you want to listen too.
– Pay attention to how long and how loud
A good rule of thumb is to keep the volume at 80% of max and not exceed listening for 90 minutes each day. It can be difficult to keep track of time, especially when you’re enjoying the music, but some of the top-tier models have built-in features that can tell you stats on how long you’ve been listening and how loud. This allows you to adjust with ease to volumes that are safer for your ears.
– Use both sides of the earphones at once
Headphones are designed to work like your ears in that they work together to create a unified presence of sound. If you only use one side, perhaps sharing with your friend on the train, it doesn’t sound as loud. You turn it up and now you’re blasting that one ear with a volume that’s too high.
– Don’t use headphones when you need to pay attention
And while listening to headphones while riding your bike or jogging is fairly common, experts advise against this for different reasons than hearing loss. Unless you’re safely on a stationary piece of equipment in the gym, it can be dangerous when you don’t hear an approaching vehicle. It should go without saying, but you should never ever wear them while you’re driving a car either. It’s illegal to do so, and for good reason. You must be alert and able to hear everything around you so you can drive safely, so the best option might be to try and reduce car cabin noise by soundproofing your vehicle.
Can’t stand to run indoors? Choose headphones that allow you to hear outside noises and keep the volume low so you can hear any dangers while enjoying music that gets you moving.
Tinnitus prevention for headphone users
You don’t have to avoid headphones of any kind. Especially noise-cancelling headphones, though whatever you put over or in your ears to listen to music, you should take some preventative measures to protect your ears from damage by exposure to loud noise.
– Reduce the time you expose yourself to loud noises
This doesn’t just apply to headphones with your devices. When you turn up your home stereo or go to a concert, keep those times to a minimum. Try to avoid exposing yourself to other loud noises regularly if you can.
– Take frequent breaks from noise
Sometimes, there’s no getting around being exposed to loud noises. In these cases, you can take breaks from the noise around you to give your ears time to relax.
– Protect yourself from the noise
When you must be in a noisy place, whether it’s the new club downtown or your job requires you to be around loud machinery, you should protect your ears from the noise. Wearing head protection will help reduce your exposure to damaging sounds. Ear plugs are a great option in these cases. Certain types of earplugs balance out the sound so you still hear it without harming your hearing.
– Limit your alcohol intake
Interestingly, alcohol can cause those hair cells in your ears to be more susceptible to damage from noise. The same goes for dehydration. If you’re out dancing at a loud club, be sure to balance any alcoholic beverages you consume with plenty of water.
– Set restrictions on the time and volume of music with your headphones
When you do use headphones or earbuds, make sure you exercise caution by setting time limits on how long you use them and how loud your turn up the volume. With earbuds, the audio signal can be elevated by 9 decibels so try to opt for larger headphones that go over the ears. Try to listen to music at just 60% of the maximum volume range and limit the time to an hour a day, or take breaks and only listen every other hour. Noise-cancelling headphones are a much better option because you can listen longer at a lower decibel level.
– Protect your hearing at work
For jobs that require you to constantly be exposed to loud noises, you should be given protective equipment to safeguard your hearing. Most employers will supply this.
– Talk to your doctor
You should be concerned about the health of your hearing. If you are frequently exposed to noise either at work, where you live, or by your own lifestyle, especially if you have the symptom of tinnitus, you should schedule an appointment to have your ears checked.
Ultimately, if you want to keep from losing your hearing, you should invest in noise-cancelling headphones to get sound clarity without having to blast the volume so loud as to drown out the rest of the world. It helps to start your volume out low and slowly turn it up.
Don’t make the mistake of listening to loud music for long periods because you’ll cause more damage to your hearing. The good news is noise-cancellation technology exists and really helps to make listening to what you want to hear comfortable while tuning out unwanted sound without blasting the volume. Even better, technology may soon develop targeted sound technology to limit ambient sound. Until then though, take care of your hearing, especially if it seems fine now. Practice preventative measures and choose noise-cancelling headphones to make listening safer and clearer.