Ear Damage Can Exist

BY: MIGUEL ÁNGEL ORDUÑO

We probably don’t think about this, but every time we listen to music we are potentially damaging our ears. How you ask? Well, by using earbuds to listen to our music.

Edward Garcia, Au.D. is an assistant professor in the department of speech-language pathology at California State University, Long Beach. Garcia is an expert in audiology and aural rehabilitation at the university.

How does ear damage occur?

“Hearing is a matter of turning vibrations in the air into electrical impulses to be used in our nervous systems, but this requires several conversions. First, we convert air vibrations into mechanical vibrations at the eardrum. Next, we convert them into fluid vibrations, which displace the small hair cells that initiate an electrical potential. The hair cells are extremely complex, so complex that some of these tiny hair cells can actually move themselves to increase our hearing ability. The cochlea is the part of the inner ear where these hair cells are located and where the damage occurs. Excessive noise exposure can lead to mechanical or metabolic changes in the cochlea resulting in damage to the hair cells. The damage is not only from physical trauma to the structures, but also from chemical changes from over-stimulation. However, [this affects] hearing ability, ringing/tinnitus and impaired speech-understanding [that] will also be present along with the hearing loss. Furthermore, some of the cochlear damage may occur with no symptoms and may actually manifest itself later.  

This is a unique population, exposed to more sound and much earlier than any other before. Personal audio devices have never been used as much as they are now.”

What is the safest decibel level for your ears?

“It is not a simple as that; the loudness is not the only danger. There are guidelines that were established for occupational safety many years ago. The exposure that is considered unsafe is directly related to the duration of the exposure. Even a moderately-loud sound can be harmful if you are exposed for a long time. Also, there are other risk factors to consider. Like the risk of sunburn from being in the sun, how strong and how long you are exposed needs to be considered. You must also consider that previous sunburns and a family history of sensitivity can increase the risk for some individuals. The same is true for exposure to loud sounds, other factors must be considered.

Generally speaking, if another person can hear and recognize your music from across a quiet room, there is a good chance you are causing yourself harm.”

Do you think we’ve yet to see the long-term impact that earbuds have on our ears?

“No. We are only starting to understand the link between hearing loss and many other health issues. The risk for dementia, heart disease and even depression is increased significantly when significant hearing loss is present. We are a communicative species. When we are babies, we are primarily tactile, needing touch to thrive. Later in life, we are auditory, our connection to our world is very dependent on our hearing. This may be why hearing loss is directly linked with cognitive decline.”

Do you have anything else to add?

“Research has consistently demonstrated that human behaviors can be difficult to modify.  It seems that we tend to keep doing what we enjoy despite the consequences.

We do know that there is one thing that causes people to reduce the volume of devices -- the reduction of environmental noise. If we don’t have to compete with a noisy environment, we will reduce the volume, this is why we increase the volume in our car stereos when the windows are down. My suggestion is reducing the environmental noise by using electronic and/or mechanical noise-suppression. Electronic noise-reduction reduces the noise by cancelling it out, mechanical reduction occurs when you insulate the individual from the environment. This is best done with custom molded earbuds or ear-molds; the fit is so precise that environmental noise cannot as easily enter. Custom earbuds are ideal for active individuals since they are smaller.”