Podcasts, music, and phone calls to go: Our ears are exposed to permanent sonication through headphones. What damage this can do and how to avoid it.
Shoes on, jacket too, headphones in – with sound in their ears, many people leave the house. Especially for commuters, headphones are an integral part of the morning and evening routine. And the loud outside noises keep you caught breaking the recommended maximum volume. According to the German Association for Ophthalmologists, this is where the problem begins: a volume above 85 decibels is critical for the ears. This is about as noisy as a busy road, a vacuum cleaner or a lawnmower. “With headphones, this limit is exceeded very quickly,” warns Prof. Laszig, Director of the ENT Clinic Freiburg. Some devices have therefore installed a volume control that displays critical areas in colour. “You should take the DB information seriously and stick to them,” the ENT specialist recommends. Because: they warn for a reason.
That’s why it’s important:
Permanent noise can cause permanent damage
To understand the load of headphones, you need to know how the hearing works. When the sound hits the ear, it is directed as an impulse wave via the eardrum and ear knuckles to the ear cup. There, small hair cells convert the sound wave into bioelectric impulses transmitted to the brain as hearing information. “If the sound pressure on the hair cell is too high, she stops her work,” lasting explains. And the fewer hair cells work, the less arrives in the brain. If you sound your hearing for 40 hours a week, sound pressure levels of 80-85 decibels can result in hearing impairments or ear noises (tinnitus), warns the German Professional Association of Ophthalmologists. For this reason, for example, noise workers have to have a hearing test carried out after 12 hours to avoid a so-called permanent threshold loss, in which the hair cells no longer regenerate.
That’s why we need to talk about it:
Headphones tempt you to increase the volume
Unlike other sources of noise, headphones have a special pitfall: their volume is adjustable. Unfortunately, our ear wants to hear louder sounds over time – whether we like it or not because it adapts to the volume. “The longer we hear a certain level, the quieter it sounds to us,” explains Prof. Laszig. As a result, we unconsciously make the headphones louder and louder to maintain the listening experience. This effect is the same for all headphones. However, you can trick your ears a little: with so-called noise-cancelling headphones. They shield outside noise, so a lower volume is enough to understand the noise from the headphones. “This reduces the risk of turning up completely,” says Laszig. Typically, over-ear headphones shield better than in-ear headphones. Noise-cancelling headphones provide the most effective shielding. “But they also don’t protect against increasing the volume over time,” says Prof. Laszig.
The ear can regenerate
Fortunately, our hearing can recover. After a long, loud listening to music with headphones, the hair cells are only temporarily overridden, and the hearing sensation is only subdued for this time. “Due to the extreme sonication, the ear no longer has any energy to transmit all sounds,” explains Laszig. That is why it is important to give the ears subsequent rest breaks. The German Association for Ophthalmologists recommends, for example, eight to ten hours of relaxation for hearing after a concert. This means: without radio, without telephone calls and street noise. The same applies to a long train journey, where you have constantly listened to loud music through headphones.”When you indulge in silence, your ear recharges your batteries. It’s just through blood flow,” Laszig says. After this wellness cure, the hair cells work completely again and pass all sounds back to the brain as usual.
Developing an awareness of volume
The bottom line is that headphones alone can’t do so much damage. It only becomes critical when the ears are exposed to many other noise sources, such as traffic, machinery or rooms with many people and cannot recover. “Noise in everyday life is often underestimated,” says Laszig. That is why the German Association of Ophthalmologists is trying to sensitize more people to their own sense of volume and has even developed its own noise app for this purpose. Because: At the end of the day, it counts whether the ear can regenerate from the sonication. And if that’s the case, you don’t have to worry.