People often rave about bone conduction headphones, especially how much safer they are than regular in-ear earphones. But it seems that many of those statements might be exaggerated, as more cases of people suffering tinnitus or hearing damage are emerging. But is that directly because of the bone conduction headphones? Can they cause tinnitus?
Bone conduction headphones do not cause tinnitus, and nothing in the vibrations or Bluetooth frequencies directly causes tinnitus or any form of hearing damage. However, misusing them, like listening at very high volumes, could cause hearing damage, which is one possible cause of tinnitus.
As with most situations in life, it’s not the use of the thing that causes a problem but the abuse of the thing. All headphones can indirectly cause tinnitus if you misuse them. There is an added risk with bone conduction, though. Let’s look at the causes of tinnitus and how bone conduction headphones may contribute to that.
What Are The Causes Of Tinnitus?
Science isn’t clear on exactly why we get tinnitus. We can identify the factors that lead to it, but why people start hearing ringing, scratching, or buzzing noises isn’t clear yet. The common opinion among doctors is that it’s the brain failing to interpret sound accurately.
However, it’s clear that numerous problems could lead to tinnitus. These are:
- Earwax build-up. Regular in-ear earphones could contribute to this, though bone conduction headphones don’t.
- Middle-ear infections. Regular headphones and earphones could also contribute to this since they can seal your ears to allow bacterial growth and transmit bacteria as you take them out and put them back in. However, bone conduction headphones do not have this problem.
- Glue ear, which is a build-up of fluid in the middle ear. Headphones don’t usually contribute to this, but allergies and infections could.
- A perforated eardrum. Contrary to popular belief, these are not usually caused by earphones or headphones since they cannot achieve the necessary volumes to damage the eardrums.
- Meniere’s disease. The cause of the disease is unclear, but its symptoms include tinnitus and vertigo.
- Otosclerosis, which is a disease causing abnormal bone growth in the middle ear.
- Head injuries.
- Exposure to sudden, once-off loud noises.
- Anaemia, which is a reduced red blood cell count.
- Side-effects and adverse effects to some types of medication.
- Acoustic neuroma, a non-cancerous growth that affects the inner ear.
- High blood pressure.
- An overactive thyroid gland.
- Paget’s disease, which affects the normal growth and repair of bones in and around your ears.
- Inner ear damage. This is the only one of these factors that could have anything to do with bone conduction headphones.
As you can see, the chances that bone conduction headphones cause tinnitus are meager. However, two in every three tinnitus sufferers have some form of hearing damage, so it is still a possibility worth considering.
How Bone Conduction Headphones May Contribute To Tinnitus
Bone conduction headphones could cause hearing damage, specifically in the inner ears, that could possibly lead to tinnitus. There’s a common misconception that bone conduction headphones don’t cause hearing damage, but the opposite is true, as they are potentially more dangerous than regular headphones.
The Misconception About Bone Conduction
People tend to believe that headphones and loud volumes affect your hearing by damaging your eardrums. However, you need noise at around 150 or 130 decibels over a prolonged period before your eardrums rupture. Most headphones don’t exceed approximately 95 decibels, and audio playback devices block higher volumes, so headphones theoretically can’t damage your eardrums.
Real hearing damage comes from the inner ear or cochlea, where the soundwaves cause fluid to vibrate, which bends tiny sensory hair cells to release chemicals. These chemicals create electrical signals in the auditory nerve, which your brain can interpret as sound.
When you listen to music at high volume, these hair cells bend too much and too often, causing them to weaken and harming your hearing in the process.
Bone conduction does not solve this problem. Because bone conduction headphones transmit the soundwaves directly into your cochlea, the fluid still vibrates, and the hair cells still bend. Bone conduction headphones at high volumes can just as easily damage your hearing as regular (air-conduction) headphones or earphones, which is one of the common causes of tinnitus.
Why Bone Conduction Headphones Could Be Even Worse
We all have a sensory limit at which our ears and brains tell us that volume is too high and we should turn it down. That usually happens when we start hearing the sound as distorted, and it could go along with severe pain in our ears. When we turn the volume down, we often notice a faint ringing in our ears that could last for a few seconds or minutes, similar to hearing a loud explosion.
This built-in limitation is usually enough to stop us from listening to music at extreme volumes for too long, specifically when we use regular air-conduction headphones or earphones.
The problem is that bone conduction headphones are notorious for having lower volumes than regular earphones, but that’s not true. Similar to how we can hear music more clearly when we turn on noise cancelation on earphones, even if it’s still the same volume, bone conduction headphones don’t have noise cancelation. In fact, they have the opposite: environmental awareness.
The fact that we can still hear the environmental sounds around us can dim out the music from bone conduction headphones to such an extent that the music seems to be playing at half the volume it’s actually set to. Putting your fingers or earplugs into your ears will reveal the actual volume, which can be much higher than it initially seemed.
That’s the volume that your cochlea is being exposed to, and suddenly you will realize that you are giving them more of a beating than you thought. You won’t even notice that you’re damaging your hearing until it’s almost too late.
There have been many examples of people, especially athletes, who regularly used bone conduction headphones at high volumes for extended periods just to find that they “suddenly” developed tinnitus and vertigo symptoms.
How Severe Can The Tinnitus Be?
The severity of the tinnitus will depend on various factors, including the intensity of the volume, how long you’ve been exposed to those volumes, and other external factors like infections. If you have some of the other problems that could cause tinnitus, using bone conduction headphones at high volumes could aggravate the condition further.
Most often, the tinnitus will be inconvenient for a day or two, then gradually subside if you stop using the headphones for a while.
But there can be more severe cases, especially if there are external factors. It’s always best to see a medical doctor for a check-up if you’re unsure. If all goes well, you should have no lasting damage, and the tinnitus will subside.
Bone conduction headphones aren’t a direct cause of tinnitus; they are generally deemed safe to use and even safer than regular headphones. That does not mean they can’t cause problems, though. The best option is always to prevent problems before they happen, so use your bone conduction headphones at safe volumes. They are actually much louder than they seem.