Sensory Cell Degradation in Ears from Over 40 Hours Weekly High-Volume Listening | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Sensory Cell Degradation in Ears from Over 40 Hours Weekly High-Volume Listening

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“Headphone or earphone deafness” occurs when the cells responsible for sensing sound are damaged due to prolonged use at high volumes.

“Headphone or earphone deafness” has become a concern due to the excessive use of headphones or earphones for activities such as watching videos, listening to music, and participating in online meetings, which have become essential parts of our lives. 

“Headphone or earphone deafness occurs as a result of listening to music at high volumes for extended periods. When people hear the term ‘deafness,’ they often think of age-related hearing loss that occurs as people get older. However, headphone or earphone deafness poses a risk to anyone using them, regardless of age,”

Explains Dr. Kyo Matsunobu, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Japan Medical University Hospital.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sounded the alarm, stating that approximately 50% of the world’s young population aged 12 to 35, or about 1.1 billion people worldwide, are at risk of hearing loss. In 2019, the WHO issued guidelines on volume and usage time to address this concern.

Headphones or earphones deliver sound energy directly into the ears, bypassing the external environment. This direct transmission of sound energy to the ears can result in greater damage to the ears compared to listening to music through speakers in a normal setting.

Noise-induced hearing loss, such as headphone and earphone-induced hearing loss, is related to damage to the cochlea, an organ located in the inner ear.

“Sound travels through the ear as vibrations in the air, causing the eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are then transmitted to the tiny bones in the middle ear, called the ossicles, and further into the cochlea in the inner ear. The vibrations from sound are converted into electrical signals by hair cells in the cochlea, which then transmit these signals to the brain. This is how we ‘hear’ sounds.

Hair cells in the cochlea play a crucial role in sensing sound. Headphone and earphone-induced hearing loss occurs when these hair cells are damaged by the high energy of loud sounds.”

Hearing loss that is difficult to notice and difficult to detect in its early stages

Headphone and earphone-induced hearing loss is characterized by a gradual decline in hearing over 5 to 10 years, rather than a sudden onset. Prolonged use of high volume over an extended period accumulates damage to the hair cells, leading to a gradual deterioration in hearing.


“People who use high volume for long periods are at a higher risk. Sound is measured in units called decibels (dB), and it’s said that adults listening to sounds at a volume of ’80 decibels’ and children at ’75 decibels’ for more than 40 hours per week are at an increased risk of hearing loss.

The noise heard while walking through a busy street is about 80 decibels, and the noise inside a train ranges from 80 to 90 decibels. Additionally, stadiums during events like soccer or baseball games can exceed 100 decibels.

When wearing earphones inside a train to enjoy music comfortably, the volume often exceeds 80 decibels. The volume of normal conversation is around 60 to 65 decibels, so it’s advisable to adjust the volume to a level where you can still hear surrounding conversations without surpassing 80 decibels.”



People who use headphones for hours on end at a volume level where they can’t hear surrounding voices should lower the volume immediately.

A 3-decibel increase in sound volume doubles the energy, which means that the amount of time you can tolerate the sound is reduced by about half. Remember, even a slight increase in volume is hard on the ears.

Furthermore, headphone and earphone deafness progresses very slowly over many years. With only a slight decrease in hearing ability, there are hardly any noticeable symptoms, making it difficult for individuals to realize on their own.

“As initial symptoms, ringing in the ears or a sensation of ear fullness may appear. Some cases may only discover their hearing loss after experiencing such ear discomfort and undergoing an examination of their hearing at an ear, nose, and throat clinic. However, by the time initial symptoms appear, the hearing loss has already progressed, making early detection quite challenging.”

There is no cure, and “prevention” is the only way to avoid it.

Headphone and earphone deafness is considered a “scary condition even from the perspective of otolaryngologists,” Dr. Matsunobu explains.


“The scariest aspect of this hearing loss is that there is no treatment available. It progresses slowly over many years without the person realizing it, and by the time they feel symptoms such as ‘difficulty hearing,’ ‘feeling of ear blockage,’ or ringing in the ears, the function has already deteriorated. Once the hair cells are damaged and lost, they do not regenerate. Therefore, if diagnosed with headphone or earphone deafness, the only recourse is to significantly reduce the volume of the device and decrease the duration of use to prevent further deterioration.”


To maintain auditory function and prevent deterioration, it is crucial to reassess how headphones and earphones have been used in the past and prioritize prevention from today onwards.


“A key aspect of prevention is to reduce the duration of use. Take breaks every 10 minutes after an hour of use, and give your ears time to rest without wearing earphones. Some people listen to music or watch videos with earphones while sleeping, which is detrimental to the ears. Even at moderate volumes, prolonged exposure can accumulate damage to the ears.”


There are individual differences in setting the volume when listening to music. What volume level is appropriate to prevent deafness?


“A guideline is to set the volume so that you can hear ambient conversation while wearing earphones, which is below 80 decibels. If you cannot hear people talking to you or are completely unable to hear ambient sounds while wearing headphones or earphones, the volume is likely above 80 decibels.


Furthermore, if choosing headphones or earphones, those with noise-canceling features are recommended. They suppress surrounding noise, reducing the need to increase the volume and minimizing damage to the hair cells.”


If you use headphones or earphones for everything you do, start by reducing the amount of time you spend using them and giving your ears a break. Even young people can develop hearing loss!

And at least once a year, it’s important to undergo a hearing test during a health checkup, and if you experience any ear discomfort or abnormalities, don’t hesitate to promptly visit an otolaryngologist. Relying on medical professionals rather than making judgments on your own is crucial.

“The number of patients isn’t high right now, but it’s expected to increase in the future. Not only the working generation, who use headphones extensively, but also children in elementary, middle, and high school who use them for video watching and gaming, are at risk.”

Headphones and earphones provide a sense of immersion and presence, making them indispensable when you need to concentrate on work or enjoy entertainment. However, despite their convenience, the fact remains that they can have adverse effects. To avoid the sudden realization one day that “I can’t hear”, it’s wise to reconsider your headphone usage as soon as possible.

Dr. Takeshi Matsunobu is an Associate Professor of Sensory and Communicative Disorders at the Graduate School of Medicine, Japan Medical University. He practices at the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Japan Medical University Hospital. His specialties include otology, audiology, and salivary gland diseases. He serves as the Chair of the “Headphone and Earphone Hearing Loss Prevention Working Group” of the Japan Society of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, collaborating with school health committees to conduct educational activities in schools.

  • Interview and text by Yoko Nemmochi

    Editor and writer. Born in Yamagata Prefecture in 1983, she worked for 10 years in the editorial department of a health information magazine, editing monthly magazines and web media, before becoming a freelance writer. Currently, she interviews, plans, and writes about doctors and specialists, focusing on healthcare and medical fields.

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