by Kimberly Allen, RN
There are many of us baby boomers that just loved our rock n’ roll and the louder the better. Most of us are also paying the price for that enjoyment as we suffer from some degree of hearing loss. Now it’s the MP3 generation that has experts concerned especially with noise – induced hearing loss or NIHL on the rise. Experts also say that not only is NIHL on the rise but it’s occurring in children and teens as well as adults. In fact a new study by the American Speech-language-Hearing Association found that teens tend to listen to their music louder than adults increasing their risk of permanent hearing loss.
It doesn’t matter where you go around the world everywhere you look people are wearing those tell-tale cords dangling from their ears. Earbuds are the MP3 generations lifeline to their music. However, there are some serious problems with using earbuds. According to experts the normal volume of music is amplified by approximately 9 decibels. When you consider that ear damage can begin at 85 decibels a 9 decibel increase is significant. Then you add the fact that earbuds are not that good at keeping out background noises like when walking down a busy city street or riding in a plane with those engines droning so you turn up the volume to drown out the outside world. This increases your risk of permanently damaging your ears as well as causing permanent hearing loss.
To really understand the damage that loud noises can cause you need to understand how the ear works, even though most of us learned about it back in middle school by the end of high school many have forgotten some of the intricacies. When sound passes through the ear canal to the ear drum it causes the ear drum to vibrate. The vibration of the ear drum then causes the 3 bones in the middle ear, the mallet, anvil and the stirrup to vibrate also which magnifies the sound. The magnified sound then travels to the cochlea which is filled with fluid. The sound makes the fluid in the cochlea vibrate making waves which causes the tiny hairs or cilia to move in rhythm with the waves. The cilia then change the sound waves to electrical signals which they then send to the brain via the auditory nerve where the brain translates the sound. The most important part of this process is the cilia. They are very fragile and sensitive to loud noises especially over an expended period of time. Which brings me to the next big issue with earbuds, time. Even if your listening to your music at a reasonable volume if you are one of those people that keep your earbuds in for hours at a time you are causing as much and maybe more damage than a higher volume for shorter periods of time. The constant stimulation of the cilia causes it to become excited and rub against the inner membrane lining the cochlea which damages even kills some of the cilia. Once the cilia is damaged or dead it can not be repaired so the hearing loss is permanent.
The best way to avoid NIHL is to keep your volume below 85dB. Decibels is the unit of measure used for sound, abbreviated dB. Zero is the lowest decibel and is absolute silence. To give you an idea how many decibels 85dB is a whisper is approximately 30dB while a normal conversation is approximately 60dB and a chain saw provides you with 100dB of noise. Damage to your cilia begins around 85dB. So listening to your music using your earbuds at 100dB for 15 minutes or more and you are killing or at least permanently damaging the cilia in your ear. Then for those of you that plug into your music for that long commute if your commute is longer than an hour you’re going to do some permanent damage. Experts say that following a 60/60 rule can help prevent permanent damage to the cilia in your ear. That’s listening for 60 minutes at 60% volume per day.
Earbuds are a great way to listen to your personal music without bothering those around you. If you take precautionary steps and follow certain guidelines as well as use a set of quality earbuds you should be able to enjoy your music without damaging your hearing for years.