A not-so-new, but growing trend in exercise accessories is the use of personal audio devices like an iPod or MP3 player. Over just the last five years, there’s been a surge in iPod usage among young people from 18 to 76 percent. Hand-in-hand with it, unfortunately, goes an increase in noise-induced hearing loss. In fact, hearing loss is now affecting nearly 20 percent of American adolescents age 12 to 19. One in 20 teens has a notable hearing loss and one in five is showing signs they are on the path to hearing loss, according to reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“It takes a long time to develop, but we are starting to see more patients with early hearing loss in the high ranges,” says Dr. Steven J. Millen, an otologist with Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin. There are two basic types of hearing loss, impulse loss from a sudden loud noise and a gradual loss. “We used to see most noise-induced hearing loss in men who worked in a factory for many years. Now, we’re seeing more young people with tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing in the ears that does not go away,” he says.
The problem is how long and how loudly people are listening to their iPods. “OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Association) says workers can only tolerate high levels of noise of, say, 100 decibels for up to two hours a day before damage can occur. When you consider the spoken voice is 60 decibels on average and some kids turn up their iPods to the maximum level of 115 decibels for several hours at a time, the risk of damage is quite high,” Millen says.
Adding to the problem is the type of ear phones typically used with personal audio technology. “People are using ear buds that fit right into the ear canal vs. hear phones that sit on the outside of the ear. This adds to the intensity,” he says.
Once tinnitus occurs, hearing loss has already begun. “The sad thing is, the treatment for tinnitus is not very good,” Millen says.
Fortunately, some changes may be on the horizon in the manufacture of personal audio devices. “There is some talk about limiting the output to 100 decibels. That’s already being done in Europe,” Millen says.
Safer headphones have been developed, too. Philips has a set of children’s headphones that include a volume lock that parents can set. Other companies have developed ear “hooks” that feature acoustic chambers that direct the sound waves away from the eardrum, and others are designed to keep the maximum audio level below 85 decibels. “At 85 decibels after eight hours, hearing damage can begin,” Millen says.
Some easy steps can be taken to protect hearing. “I advise people to keep the volume down; listen to your iPod or MP3 player at 50 to 60 percent of maximum output. And, limit listening time,” Millen says.