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Earbuds and Hearing Loss

Expert Sounds Off On Limiting Exposure

These days, it seems as if you can’t turn around without seeing someone wearing a pair of earbuds connected to an iPod or other portable music player.

It’s common for kids of all ages to plug in, especially while riding in the car. Many of us have family members who turn up the volume on their personal devices so loud that everyone else can hear it through their headphones. Back in the day, I loved torturing my mom by cranking up Van Halen on the headphones of my Sony Walkman to a level that would make everyone in the room cringe. As parents, should we be concerned that listening to loud music through headphones could lead to hearing loss in the future?

The unequivocal answer is yes. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that hearing loss in teenagers has risen 30 percent over the last 20 years. Noise exposure is one of the most common and most avoidable causes of hearing loss. With noise exposure, it is not only the volume level that is important, but also the duration of time of listening to a particular volume which can cause hearing loss. In other words, the longer one keeps the volume at excessive levels, the worse the damage to hearing. If you like to turn up the volume when a favorite song comes on for a few minutes, and then turn it back down, the chances of damaging the ear are lower. However, if you or your kids keep the volume at 90 percent or greater every day while riding in the car or at the gym for example, you have a much greater chance of developing permanent hearing loss.

With noise-induced hearing loss, the primary area where the ear is damaged is not the eardrum or the bones of the middle ear – it is actually deeper inside. The inner ear is where the nerve that brings the sound message up to the brain connects with the organ of hearing known as the cochlea. Within the cochlea are very delicate and specialized hair cells. When these cells are stimulated at an excessive level for too long a duration, they temporarily lose their ability to transmit sound. When this happens, sound has to be made louder in order for you to hear it. These cells can recover after a single exposure, but if you overexpose them often enough, they end up dying, and you lose hearing in that portion of the inner ear. The cells that die do not regenerate.

As a family member, there are some things you can do in order to minimize the risk of noise induced hearing loss in your loved ones. On Apple products such as iPods, iPhones, and iPads, you can set the maximum volume level and lock it with a combination so it cannot be altered. This feature is located on these devices by going under Settings and then selecting Volume Limit. There are also special headphones available that automatically limit volume.

The 60/60 rule is a good one for everyone: Listen for no more than 60 minutes at a time and at 60 percent of maximum volume. Encourage your kids especially to enjoy music, just at the right level.

Travis Shaw, MD, specializes in reconstructive surgery of the head and neck, scars, rhinoplasty, and skin cancer. He sees patients of all ages at his office in Stony Point and lives in Westover Hills with his family.
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