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Actually the answer is yes, headphones can be very damaging to your ears.
A team from the University of Leicester recently proved that noises louder than 110 decibels cause damage to a special type nerve cell coating, which in turn can cause tinnitus (basically a buzzing or whining in the ears – and here’s me thinking that it just made things sound ‘a bit tinny’) and even temporary deafness in some cases.
According to medical news today.com, who reported on the University’s findings, the myelin sheath is a type of coating that covers the nerve cells that connect the ears with the brain. Any noise over 100 decibels begins to wear away this coating, meaning that the signals will eventually stop reaching the brain. Given time, the myelin sheath will usually (but not always) heal itself and reform, resulting in the damage only being temporary. Still, it is something to think about.
As for more permanent damage, well, the facts are actually startling. According to TIME magazine’s Laura Blue,
“Hearing loss is more common than ever before. About 16% of American adults have an impaired ability to hear speech, and more than 30% of Americans over age 20 — an estimated 55 million people — have lost some high-frequency hearing”.
These shocking statistics were put forward in the ‘Archives of Internal Medicine’ journal and first published in 2008. Following this publication, Blue interviewed Brian Fligor, who was, at the time, the director of diagnostic audiology at Children’s Hospital Boston. In the interview, Fligor said,
“If you’re using the earbuds that come with an iPod and you turn the volume up to about 90% of maximum and you listen a total of two hours a day, five days a week, our best estimates are that the people who have more sensitive ears will develop a rather significant degree of hearing loss — on the order of 40 decibels (dB). That means the quietest sounds audible are 40 dB loud. Now, this is high-pitched hearing loss, so a person can still hear sounds and understand most speech. The impact is going to be most clearly noted when the background-noise level goes up, when you have to focus on what someone is saying. Then it can really start to impair your ability to communicate”.
So, the question now becomes, what can you do to lower the risk?
Sam Costello of About.com suggests turning down the volume, which is reasonably obvious, really. However, (s)he also suggests accessing the ‘volume control’ on your iPod or device and lowering the maximum volume setting (synch it to the computer for more such options), as well as listening for shorter periods of time and switching from earbuds to ‘over the ear’ phones. Earbuds are the most dangerous headphone type, apparently.
Just for the record, the average American iPod can generate about 115 decibels, which is equivalent to attending a reasonably loud rock concert (although not a Motorhead gig obviously – now that’s a band which almost guarantees absolute deafness for a least a few days afterwards, trust me).
However, the good news is that if you’re in the EU, your iPod is limited to 100db maximum output by law. Even though you are still at risk if you turn the volume all the way up and listen to it all day long, that risk is considerably less on our side of the pond.