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Tips to avoid pain while using earphones
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Tips to avoid pain while using earphones

Earphones can cause pain and even hearing loss if not used correctly, say experts, suggesting measures to reduce or negate its health implications
Wearing earphones or headphones for longer durations creates a continuous bombardment of noise to the inner ear.
Having a constant and continuous sound in the ears impacts their function in the long run. (Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K / Happiest Health)

Earphones are convenient, no doubt. With the world increasingly tending toward multitasking, they indeed are a boon. Or are they? There are health implications associated with prolonged earphone usage. And, while their usage cannot be avoided given its convenience – be it work or leisure – there are certain measures that can be taken to negate the ill effects and avoid ear pain due to earphones.

The earphones have come a long way when it comes to the tech involved. Today we have wireless Bluetooth earphones and bone conduction earphones, along with the original vibrating diaphragm ones. And they come loaded with advanced features and multiple user modes which make it feasible to use them for many hours at a length. You could be listening to your favorite music or a podcast while driving, or taking work calls at the office while sitting on your computer. All this convenience, and pleasure too (music after all is heavenly), comes at a price in the long run.

Ear and sound

Having a constant and continuous sound in the ears impacts their function in the long run. The high volume can affect mental health too.

“Sound levels about 70-80 decibels is the maximum safe sound limit [for humans],” says Dr Aanchal A Mittal, consultant ENT/otorhinolaryngologist, Apollo Clinic, Bengaluru. “Sound that is above 85 decibels is damaging to the ears and exceeding it reduces the safe duration of noise. For every three-decibel increase, the duration of exposure should reduce by half.”

For instance, if the number of hours for safe exposure to a sound of 85 decibel is eight hours, then increasing it to 88 decibels would decrease the duration to four hours.

“Wearing earphones or headphones for longer durations creates a continuous bombardment of noise to the inner ear, which over a period of time, will create permanent damage to the nerves and hearing,” says Dr Santosh Shivaswamy, consultant, ENT and head and neck surgeon at Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru. This results in hearing loss or tinnitus – a buzzing sound in the ear.”

Earphones and noise-induced hearing loss

Most headphones and earphones today can produce a sound level up to 100-110 decibels. Listening to such a loud volume would decrease the permissible limit drastically to around a minute and a half. Clearly, everyone will be using earphones for more than this duration. Excessive use of earphones and prolonged exposure to loud noise can cause noise-induced hearing loss.

“The ears have very delicate hair cells that transmit the signals of sound from the ear to the brain,” explains Dr Mittal. “When they are constantly bombarded with noise, they are worked beyond their capacity. Prolonged exposure to noise can cause hair cell death resulting in hearing loss. The hair cells also release certain chemical neurotransmitters while passing the signal to the brain. When the hair cells are constantly utilized, these neurotransmitters get depleted causing metabolic stress resulting in hearing loss.”

Ear pain due to earphones

Apart from noise-induced hearing loss, excessive use of earphones can also cause other issues such as pain in the ear and infections.

“Over-the-ear headphones can put a lot of pressure on the outer ear-pinna, leading to excessive pain in the cartilage,” says Dr Mittal. “While using earphones [plugged into the ear], the wax is prevented from coming out and it builds up in the ear. This puts a lot of pressure on to the ear skin and canal, causing pain.”

As earphones are mostly kept in pockets, purses, and on tables, from where they pick up microbes and germs, they can get transferred to the ears during use, causing infections. Sharing earphones can also lead to spreading of infection. Using earphones while running or working out results in trapping the sweat and moisture within the ear which can result in infection too.

“When people use earphones, the ear becomes a closed environment locking the air and moisture in the ear canal creating a more favourable environment for fungus to grow,” says Dr Shivaswamy. “The earbuds of the earphones also create a constant pressure on the ear canal skin, which causes itching. This, along with moisture can result in fungal or bacterial infection of the ear.”

With ear pain due to earphones becoming more common, getting the right fitting earbuds is important as that helps avoid undue pressure, and pain.

Headphones, earphones or loudspeaker?

Inarguably, it is better to use the phone loudspeakers whenever possible.

“When you use the phone on loudspeaker, the sound gets dissipated in the whole room or environment,” explains Dr Shivaswamy. “But while using headphones, the sound gets channelized to a corner, and then enters the ear canal. So, there’s still some open space [between the headphone and the ear canal] as the sound gets transmitted.”

“But when you use earphones, the sound directly enters the ear canal, and the loud noise can continuously bombard it. Over time, sound under excess pressure in the closed canal can damage the hair cells and nerves causing hearing loss. So, using the phone on loudspeaker whenever possible is better,” he adds.

How to best use earphones efficiently

Mobile phones have indicators that normally show when you are increasing the volume beyond the safe limit. Going by it and keeping the volume in the safe zone can reduce the chances of damage. Try not to increase the volume to its maximum capacity, advise experts.

“Get comfortably fitting earphones and make sure there is no pressure,” suggests Dr Mittal. “The volume should be around 60% of the maximum volume. Give breaks while using the earphones for hours at a stretch, and avoid using it for so long. Just before switching on the earphones make sure, you reduce the volume to the minimum to avoid the sudden blast into the ear. Using noise cancellation earphones reduce the tendency to increase the volume, as the background noise is removed.  Ultimately, make sure to clean the earphones using a cloth or sanitizing solution.”

Dr Shivaswamy urges everyone to not let the ears get damaged to such an extent that it becomes irreversible. “Use one earphone at a time and then swap to use the other ear as this reduces the continuous bombardment of the inner ear with sound/noise,” he adds.

Takeaways

  • Continuous and prolonged use of earphones can cause ear pain, due to improper fit or excess volume.
  • The excess noise can damage hair cells that transmit signals from the ear to the brain resulting in noise-induced hearing loss.
  • The earphones create a closed environment and as a result, moisture builds up in the ear canal, creating a favorable environment for microbial infection.
  • Using the phone on loudspeakers whenever possible and using one earphone at a time can reduce the damage to the ears and avoid ear pain due to earphones.

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