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Avoid hearing damage when using headphones

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In today’s technological age, access to information and music is easier than ever. If we look around carefully, we see people who are on the move with a smartphone, iPod, MP3 player, tablet or other portable electronic device. It is noticeable that many of them wear headphones.

Progress makes it possible: Portable devices are becoming ever easier to integrate into our normal everyday life. A comfort that unfortunately also has its downsides.

It cannot be overlooked that more and more people are wearing headphones or earphones for their leisure activities such as jogging, cycling or taking a leisurely stroll. But what on the one hand provides fun and relaxation can on the other hand damage the health of the ear. This is especially the case if the volume level is not adjusted and the headphones or earphones are worn continuously.

With regard to the potential hazard posed by headphones, the experts sometimes have different opinions. Some doctors believe that in-ear headphones are no more dangerous to the ears than normal headphones that are simply placed on the ear. Other practitioners have argued that earphones are more damaging to the ear than traditional headphones.

In any case, everyone agrees that headphones, due to their proximity to the ears, can cause damage above a certain volume. Both sound waves that hit the ears with too much force and noise that lasts too long are classified as potentially damaging to the ears. So it’s not just about the volume, but also about the duration of the strain on the ears. That is why ear, nose and throat doctors have long been pointing out the risk of resulting ear damage, which can even lead to hearing loss.

In most cases, hearing loss progresses slowly. If it is finally diagnosed, it may be too late for full hearing recovery. Unfortunately, damage to the inner ear can no longer be repaired. That is why they are called irreparable in medicine.

What is the basis of the assumption that in-ear headphones are supposed to pose a greater risk of hearing damage than over-ear headphones?

An excerpt from the table in the urban noise primer gives a brief overview of the noises in everyday life:

Volume: Example:
40 to 55 dB normal conversation
53 to 64 dB Room volume
63 to 74 dB printer
68 to 84 dB Cars
78 to 88 dB Trucks
88 to 104 dB Discos
109 to 120 dB Rock concerts
108 to 120 dB Aircraft in local transport

In terms of volume, rock concerts can easily compete with airplanes. The critical limit is 120 dB.

Even if music and singing are among the most beautiful daily companions and leisure activities, it is easy to see from the table that you are exposed to the risk of lasting damage to your hearing in this area in particular. The reason: A volume of over 85 dB is considered harmful.

Headphones are suitable for attenuating the sound waves from outside. However, if you use an MP3 player with earphones, for example, the sound waves hit your ear canal unfiltered.

What happens in the ear when sound waves are too loud and constantly strong and how are sound waves converted in the ear?

The ears are very delicate and sensitive structures. This becomes particularly clear when it comes to volume. Loud noise or a long-term volume cause the hair cells, which are normally arranged like brushes in the passages of the inner ear, to be depressed by the sound waves. Depending on the sound pressure or sound duration, it can sometimes happen that they are pressed so flat that they can no longer fully recover. And this is exactly what leads to hearing impairment and even permanent irreversible hearing loss, which not only makes listening to music difficult, but also completely impossible.

If, on the other hand, you listen to music normally, with or without headphones, the sound waves enter the ear canal without the destructive energy. From there they hit the eardrum, which is set in vibration by the sound waves. In response to the vibrations of the eardrum, the hammer, anvil, and stapes, the tiny bones in the middle ear, vibrate. The sound waves then reach the cochlea, which is located in the inner ear. It is filled with liquid and is called the actual hearing organ. The hair cells are also located in the inner ear. The task of these sensitive cells is to convert sound waves into electrical impulses that finally reach the brain via the auditory nerve.

The various sound information is processed in the brain. The brain links the impulses with the stored experiences and emotions. This addressing of emotions means that music can make us sad or happy. It can also have a calming or stimulating effect and thus therapeutic.

What are the differences between the headphones?

With headphones, it makes a difference whether you use over-ear headphones (headphones) or in-ear headphones (earphones). Because earphones are plugged into the ear canal, they close the outer ear canals. This can lead to an amplification of noise inside the ear, which contributes to the fact that, for example, music or speech is perceived louder than with normal headphones.

Depending on the volume, the sound waves can hit the fine hair cells so violently that they are severely damaged and can no longer straighten up. If the cilia can no longer transmit signals, irreparable hearing damage occurs. This state should be reached very quickly at a volume of 120 dB.

How can hearing be protected from damage?

The so-called upper acoustic comfort limit is 85 dB. This means the noise or volume limit below which it is possible to listen to music for up to eight hours or to surround yourself with other background noise. Of course, you will not be able to avoid all loud noises, but when using headphones or earphones, the health of your hearing is largely in your own hands.

You can protect your ears by doing the following:

  • Use good quality headphones.
  • Keep a distance from the loudspeakers at concerts.
  • As a precaution, take earplugs with you to events.
  • Make sure that the volume of your playback devices is a maximum of 85 dB. Higher values ​​should be the exception.
  • Give your ears a break of at least 10 hours after a concert so that the hair cells can recover.
  • For the most part, stick to the “60% / 60 minute rule” (a maximum of 60% of the maximum volume and no longer than 60 minutes of listening without a break).

The following signs indicate possible hearing damage:

  • You hear ringing, beeping or roaring in your ears.
  • You hear tones or noises weakened or muffled.
  • You can no longer understand the words that are spoken a few steps away.

Are there alternatives to normal headphones and earphones that protect the ears better or do they have to be available at all?

The experts have different opinions on this:
According to Prof. Dr. med. Dr. hc Thomas Zahnert, specialist in ear, nose and throat medicine in Dresden, there are headphones that switch off ambient noise. This allows you to enjoy the music at a lower volume from the outset.

Dr. Michael Deeg, spokesman for the German Professional Association of Ear, Nose and Throat Doctors V. is more skeptical. According to his own admission, he does not want to trust the new technology unreservedly. For him it is important that constant noise that exceeds the 85 decibel limit is avoided.

According to Ms. Marianne Frickel, President of the Federal Guild of Hearing Acousticians Kdör (biha), it is important that young people in particular are informed about what earphones can do. In any case, it is better to use the normal headphones that rest on the ears. She also recommends not turning up the volume all the way and taking sufficient breaks to relax.

It is generally confirmed that the number of people with hearing impairments is increasing. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this is definitely related to the increased use of traditional headphones and earbuds.

Unfortunately, there is no binding law for the decibel limit for the devices in question. Although there is an EU directive, a maximum volume of 85 decibels is not preset in most electrical appliances. For some of these devices, the maximum volume can be limited to 85 dB in the music settings.

The problem is that hearing damage caused by noise is not noticed in a timely manner. They develop slowly and are often not noticed for years. Health insurance companies report that an increasing number of their insured persons under the age of 18 now need hearing aids.

If you have the impression that you can no longer hear as well as you used to, have a hearing test done by a hearing care specialist. The test is free and completely non-binding.

Is there any protection against permanent damage at all?

Noise-canceling headphones are a good alternative to over-ear and in-ear headphones . These headphones completely enclose the ears and suppress ambient noise. The clear advantage is that you can listen to your favorite songs on the go at normal volume. So you are not forced to turn up the sound just because the traffic noise drowns out the transmission in the headphones.

However, the noise-canceling headphones do not only have advantages. A disadvantage that should not be underestimated is that they are less suitable for road traffic. Because they strongly filter ambient noise, there is a risk that warning noises will not be heard, which can lead to accidents.

But with the necessary caution in traffic, the noise-canceling headphones promise musical leisure enjoyment with a feel-good character. Here, too, it depends largely on the “how” when using it.

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