If you love playing video games or listening to music, audiobooks, and podcasts, then you already know that a good pair of headphones is your best friend. It helps you enjoy listening in private and without disturbing other people while you do other things, like studying, running on the treadmill, commuting, drawing, or cooking. While there are benefits to using headphones, they can also cause ear pain if you wear them long enough.
To stop your headphones from hurting your ears, try to wear them less and for shorter periods. You can also reduce the sound level and adjust them so that they don’t fit too snugly and cause too much pressure on your ears. You may also need to see an ear doctor and take meds if the pain persists.
This article will talk about the benefits of wearing headphones, as well as its downsides. You’ll also learn more about why wearing headphones can hurt your ears and what happens if you ignore them. Moreover, we’ll give you some tips on what you can do about this problem.
Why Wearing Headphones Can Hurt Your Ears
Using headphones can cause earache. However, this pain may be a sign of something simple like ill-fitting headphones, or it could be a symptom of something a lot more serious, such as ear damage or ear infection.
A poor fit means that your headphones are too tight around your head. This, in turn, squeezes and puts extra pressure on the sensitive cartilage of your pinna or outer ear. When this happens, it causes discomfort, which could turn to pain with prolonged pressure.
Moreover, there are also some people whose ears are more sensitive to the earpad material of the headphone or the chemicals on it. If this is the case, the ear pain may come from allergic contact dermatitis or any allergic reaction.
Excessive Noise or Overly Loud Music
Streaming sound or music right into your ears isn’t bad, but if you do it at high volume levels, then it could present problems in the long run. If the sound gets too loud and beyond the danger threshold, you’ll develop more than just earache.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
The volume or loudness or volume of a sound is determined by sound pressure level or SPL, which is measured in decibels or dB. It has to be above the auditory or hearing threshold for people to hear a sound, which is 0 dB for humans. If you frequently listen to a sound at a volume that reaches 90 dB and above, it could result in chronic hearing damage.
A sound pressure level of 110 dB is the threshold of discomfort, so hearing sounds at this volume becomes uncomfortable. An SPL of 130 dB is the threshold of pain, so hearing sounds at this point is already painful, and anything louder could already result in acute hearing loss.
But how do you know about sound pressure levels, and how can you tell if you’re already at certain thresholds? Here’s a comparison of different pressure levels to give you an idea:
- 20 dB: Quiet countryside
- 40 dB: Quiet conversation
- 50 dB: Birds chirping
- 60 dB: Normal conversation
- 70 dB: Vacuum cleaner
- 80 dB: Traffic noise
- 100 dB: Loud industrial noise
- 120 dB: Very loud music, like at a nightclub or a rock concert
- 130 dB: Nearby thunder, gunshot
- 140 dB: Jet engine
So, while your ears are constantly exposed to different kinds of sounds, some of these can be damaging. If the sound waves damage your eardrums, middle ears, or inner ears, it’s called acoustic trauma.
The damage is usually temporary, but in some cases, it leads to permanent hearing loss. In fact, if you’re regularly exposed to sounds that are at least 90 dB, which includes listening to loud music through headphones, you could suffer from chronic hearing loss.
Headphones can also cause ear infection, which could be painful as well as itchy. This is especially true in the case of earplugs and earbuds, which you insert into the ear. But while some headphones just rest on the outer portion of your ear, they can still create problems related to aural hygiene, bring additional dirt and bacteria into your ear canal, and encourage the growth of these bacteria inside your ear.
For one, wearing headphones increases your ear canal’s humidity and temperature and provides a vehicle for organisms to thrive on the canal skin. Not to mention that it could cause skin abrasion. All of these can cause infection of your external ear.
Moreover, constant use of headphones could prevent the passage of air in your ears, and this would encourage the growth of organisms. Of course, sharing headphones with other people also means that bacteria could pass through from a person with a chronic ear infection to another person who doesn’t.
Excessive Earwax Buildup
Headphones and earbuds can also increase the buildup of earwax. They don’t technically trigger more earwax production, but they do restrict airflow, which could hinder your ears’ self-cleaning process.
Yes, your ears are designed so that they clean themselves, but wearing headphones can trap the earwax inside when it’s supposed to work its way out naturally. Impacted earwax occurs when there’s an excessive buildup inside your ears that blocks your ear canal, which can be painful. This can also ultimately affect your hearing.
What To Do When Your Headphones Cause Pain
If you’re experiencing pain in your ears and you suspect that it’s caused by your constant use of headphones, you’ll need to take steps to solve the problem. Here are some things you can do to stop the headphone-caused pain:
Have Your Ear Checked To Rule Out or Treat Ear Infection
It’s important to take this as a first step because an infection may cause pain in your ears, and you need to rule it out as soon as possible. If you have an ear infection, you need to treat it before it causes irreversible damage to your ear and permanently affects your hearing.
Other people will take the possibility of infection out of the equation if they don’t see a foul-smelling liquid coming from their ears. But you don’t have to wait for this, and you can choose to be proactive.
Moreover, you need to keep in mind that your ears are just several centimeters from your brain, so you’d naturally want them free of bacteria and other harmful organisms before they have the chance to spread.
As such, schedule an appointment with your ENT doctor. Your doctor can also detect and treat allergies if that’s what is causing the discomfort.
Turn Down the Volume
Don’t blast loud sounds directly into your ears, as this could potentially damage your eardrums. As such, reduce the sound level to 60 percent or less of your media player’s maximum volume. If your headphones feature separate volume control, make sure to lower that, too. Doing this will lessen the pressure on your ears, and you’ll be able to listen to your favorite tracks in a more relaxed state.
Limit Your Use of Headphones
Allow your ears to rest and lessen the frequency and the duration of your headphone use. Taking many listening breaks can help prevent hearing loss associated with the constant use of headphones and earplugs. For example, you can take 15- to 30-minute breaks for every hour you use your headphones. You can also alternate using headphones and speakers while making sure they’re not on full volume.
Make Sure Your Headphones Are Not Too Tight
Most headphones are designed as a one-size-fits-all, yet they really just fit average-sized heads and average-sized ears. Fortunately, not all headphones are created equal, and the standard size isn’t the same for all. That’s because the shape and size of people’s ears and head vary greatly.
As such, the only way to make sure your headphones are comfortable is to try them on and see if they fit perfectly. It’s important to get headphones that feel just right on your ears and head. Or, at the very least, buy an adjustable pair.
So, how do you check the fit of your headphones?
First, check your headphones’ clamping force, which is what secures the device in place. Make sure the ear cups don’t cling onto your ears too tightly. Any excess tension on your head could cause extreme discomfort, and prolonged use could build up pressure, which could eventually cause external compression headaches.
If you find your new headphones are too tight or have a very strong clamping force, you may want to stretch them out or break them in before use. Pull the ear cups away from each other so that they’re stretched wider than the width of your head. Place something thick and sturdy between the cups, like a stack of books, and let them rest in this position for a day or two.
You should also make sure your headphones have sufficient headband padding or cushion so that it doesn’t cause pressure and pain on top of your head. Thick ear cup padding is also important so that the cups don’t hurt your ear cartilage when they press against it. Not only will shallow ear cup padding be uncomfortable or painful, but it could also cause scratches on the skin.
Clean Your Headphones and Don’t Share
Maintaining proper hygiene also applies to the use of headphones. Always clean your earpieces gently and remove any buildup of earwax and dirt. You can use a piece of cloth and damp it with alcohol or disinfecting spray.
Another thing is to treat your headphones as a personal item and avoid sharing. But if you have to share, try getting disposable headphone covers.
Downsides of Using Headphones
Wearing headphones, earphones, or earbuds, has its own disadvantages, too. Most of these disadvantages are associated with ear and hearing problems, and they’re more likely to occur with prolonged and frequent use, as well as with listening to sound at high volume.
Problems associated with headphone use include:
- Noise-induced hearing loss
- Hearing loss
- Ear infection
- Excessive ear wax
- Ear pain
Due to the close proximity of headphones to your eardrums, they can generate high SPL or sound pressure levels. A continuous SPL of 80 decibels and above can cause hearing loss that may just be a temporary impairment or, worse, irreversible damage. The increased pressure in your ear canal can also cause dizziness.
Moreover, using headphones can damage the hair cells in your cochlea, and this could result in an electrical buzzing, roaring, or ringing in your ear or in your head called tinnitus. People with tinnitus are also prone to become highly sensitive to everyday sounds. This rare hearing disorder is called hyperacusis, and this would make even normal environmental sounds unbearable.
Using headphones and earplugs can also block the passage of air in your ears, and this lack of circulation encourages the growth of bacteria inside. As such, the long-term use of headphones increases your chance of developing an ear infection. Bacteria can also come from your headphones, and sharing this device could mean transferring bacteria from person to person. Ear infections, if left untreated, could affect your brain.
Excessive Ear Wax
Wearing headphones for extended periods develops excessive ear wax, too, and this accumulation increases your chance of developing tinnitus, ear infections, hearing difficulty, and earache.
Pain in your ears may also result from long-term use of headphones and listening to high volume sounds. The degree of pain can vary. You may experience pain in the outer portion or the cartilage of your ears, soreness in the entire vicinity — including your jaw to the top of your head — or pain that extends to the inner parts of your ear.
Wearing Headphones Still Has Benefits
Using headphones to listen to music, sound effects, audiobooks, podcasts, and other audio hurts your ears and causes discomfort, but they still pose plenty of benefits. And to enjoy these benefits, you will have to make sure that you get good-quality ones that fit you well or you can adjust.
These benefits include:
Headphones Cancel Outside Noise for Greater Immersion
Using headphones can cancel out most outside noise and other distractions, thanks to the cushioned cups covering both ears. This, in turn, allows you to immerse fully in whatever you’re listening to and would make it seem like you’re right where the sound or music is taking you.
Imagine playing your video game, or watching a movie, or listening to an audiobook, and being able to hear everything clearly without being bothered by your neighbor as he plays his guitar all night.
Headphones Help You Focus on a Particular Task
Many people can focus on whatever they’re doing while listening to certain types of music. Some of those who aren’t into music prefer listening to recorded talks, white noise, and other sounds instead. This ability to focus is improved when you’re free from distractions and when you have peace of mind knowing that you’re not bothering other people with your music preference.
When it comes to studying, for example, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that music — especially classical music — can engage the brain. Not only can it train it to pay better attention to important events and predict what could happen, but it can also enhance your reasoning skills.
To put it simply, listening to music could make studying easier, as it helps the brain easily interpret and absorb information. When you can focus on your tasks, you are also able to become more productive.
Headphones Are Portable
Headphones offer you a way to listen to your favorite audio while you’re on the go. You don’t have to be in front of your computer or your media player to be able to play your favorite songs or podcast and blast it through your speakers.
In fact, you don’t even have to be home at all. With a headphone and a smartphone or any mobile device, you can enjoy it even when you’re riding a bus or walking your dog. And when you’re done, your headphones and mobile device can fit in your bag.
Headphones Help Relieve Stress
Listening to your go-to relaxation tracks, in general, can help relieve stress. But when you are using headphones, you would be able to block out all external noise that could cause you distress and anxiety. Having the music or white noise fed directly into your ears at a soft volume will make you feel like the sounds are inside your head. This way, you will be able to just focus on your breathing, thoughts, meditation, or whatever it is that eases your mind.
Headphones as a Statement Piece
People wear headphones as a fashion statement piece. But more than that, putting on headphones has become a way of letting other people know that you don’t want to be bothered. So, for those times when you don’t feel like your usual sociable self and just want to be alone, wearing a pair of headphones is the most polite way of relaying the message.
Ear pain while using headphones is a common problem. It could be because your headphones are too tight, you’re playing your music or audio tracks too loudly, you’re using your headphones too much, or you have an ear infection.
Whatever is causing your earache, you need to make sure that your headphones fit you just right, your headphones are clean, you’re playing audio at just the right volume, and you’re limiting your use of headphones. You may also need regular ear checkups with a doctor.