In a recent online article, Sound Guys author Tina Sieber, who covers auditory health and sustainability, reports on headphones and the relationship they may have with tinnitus. She emphatically states in the beginning of her article that both wireless headphones and earbuds are harmless when used responsibly.
We as audiologists know that Bluetooth and noise-cancelling features in headphones or earbuds are not to blame for tinnitus. Unfortunately, we are also aware that headphones and earbuds are often not used responsibly.
The problem is that people, especially young people, tend to listen at high volumes for extended periods of time. Herrera et al (2016) reported that 79 percent of young people use portable music devices with 34 percent of them having long periods of exposure; in addition, more than 37 percent of them use these devices at a high volume. This can and often does cause hearing loss, which in turn can cause tinnitus. Sieber (2021) suggests that those with hearing loss are twice as likely to have tinnitus when compared to those with normal hearing.
Interestingly, noise-cancelling headphones may actually help with tinnitus, in an indirect manner. By attenuating ambient noise, a user can listen with headphones or earbuds at a lower volume level, which can reduce the chance of obtaining or worsening hearing loss – and protect you from developing tinnitus.
Safe listening levels consist of no more than 70 percent volume with over the ear headphones and no more than 60 percent with earbuds. There are also mobile apps and settings on most phones that limit maximum volume.
To summarize, no, headphones and earbuds do not cause tinnitus; however, using them inappropriately can definitely increase your chances of noise-induced hearing loss, which in turn can increase your likelihood of developing tinnitus.
Herrera S, Lacerda AB, Lürdes D, Rocha F, Alcaràs PA, Ribeiro LH. (2016) Amplified music with headphones and its implications on hearing health in teens. Int Tinnitus J 20(1):42–7.
Sieber T. (2021) Can headphones cause tinnitus? Sound Guys (accessed September 28, 2021).
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