We live in a rapidly changing world. Every day, new technologies are being developed that make our lives easier, more convenient and safer than ever before. With the touch of a button, digital home management systems make sure our houses are warm, lit and secure. Wearable devices like fitness trackers count our steps and monitor our sleep. And newer-model cars can sense and correct for impending collisions.
But some life-changing technologies can actually have detrimental effects to our health. Take the ubiquitous smartphone. They can help us keep in touch with friends and family, connect via social media, and look up virtually any information at the speed of the closest wifi signal.
But they can also cause tinnitus.
Why? Because where there’s a smartphone, there are headphones. And headphones—especially earbuds—when used recklessly, can damage the delicate inner workings of the ear…sometimes permanently.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a condition where patients hear sound that doesn’t have an external source. Many people experience tinnitus as a high-pitched ringing, but it can also sound like humming, buzzing, whooshing, clicking or your own heartbeat. There are multiple causes for tinnitus—including trauma to the head and neck, medication side effects, Meniere’s disease, age-related hearing loss and even earwax. But by far the most common cause of tinnitus is over-exposure to loud noises.
How Can Loud Noises Lead to Tinnitus?
Deep in the inner ear are microscopic hairs called cilia. These highly sensitive hairs sway and move in response to sound waves, sending the sensation of sound to our brains. Loud noises can permanently damage the cilia, bending and breaking them and scrambling the signals they send to our brain. That damage and the resulting auditory signal misfiring can result in noise-induced hearing loss and the intermittent or constant sounds of tinnitus.
How Do Earbuds Cause Tinnitus?
Earbuds are small headphones that are worn inside the ear, boosting the intensity of sounds as much as six to nine decibels (That’s about the difference between the sound of a vacuum cleaner and the sound of a motorcycle). Also, earbuds are positioned inside the ear canal, which places them close to the delicate cilia. In addition to the dangerous proximity to our inner ears, earbuds are not efficient at blocking outside sounds. As a result, listeners often crank the volume to drown out the outside noise.
How Can You Protect Your Ears?
Fear not—you and your family members can still use headphones to safely enjoy your favorite tunes, podcasts and audiobooks. Just follow these simple precautions:
- Use the 60/60 rule: long exposures to loud sounds do the most damage. Set the volume at less than 60% and take breaks every 60 minutes.
- Check in with your ears: if you hear ringing in your ears—or everything seems muffled—after taking out your earbuds, you need to turn down the volume immediately. It’s a sure sign you’re causing your ears long-term damage, even if your hearing returns to normal.
- Check in with your surroundings: when using headphones, you should still be able to hear what’s going on around you. If you can’t, or if other people in the room can hear what you are listening to, the volume is set too high.
- Invest in good noise-canceling headphones: over-the-ear headphones are safer than earbuds, and noise-cancelling headphones are safer still. The noise-canceling mechanism helps drown out outside noise, mitigating the need for high volumes. You’ll be able to listen to music in loud locations like airplanes and buses without turning the volume up past 50%.
- Make sure headphones of any kind fit properly: a better fit can help prevent sound leakage, so you won’t be tempted to turn the volume up.
- Get regular hearing checks—and get your kids checked, too: we’re all susceptible to damaging our ears with earbuds—but kids and teenagers (who are not always known for their judgment and self-preservation skills) are at an even higher risk. One in 6 adolescents has high-frequency hearing loss brought on by exposure to loud noises like music played through headphones. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends having your kids screened for hearing damage at higher tones at ages 11 to 14, 15 to 17, and 18 to 21. This is typically done at regular well-child check-ups.
If You Have Damaged Your Ears with Earbuds, Is There a Cure?
Sometimes tinnitus can be temporary. For example, if you’ve been to a singular loud event like a football game or a concert, you may experience muffled hearing or ringing in your ears that returns to normal after a few hours. However, damage that happens over the long-term tends to be cumulative, difficult to treat and often impossible to cure. If you are experiencing the effects of tinnitus and hearing loss due to long-term noise exposure, consult with your family doctor. They can run tests, recommend specialists, and start you on a plan for actively managing your condition.