We’ve all seen the warnings that listening to music at high volume damages our hearing, especially when using headphones. Most of us have also heard that bone conduction does not carry the same risks and that you can listen to music as loudly as you want with them. But is this statement true, or can bone conduction headphones damage your hearing?
Bone conduction headphones can damage your hearing despite not going through the normal external auditory channels. Volume-induced hearing damage in humans most often happens in the inner ears, particularly the cochlea, and bone conduction headphones still transmit to these sensitive organs.
It doesn’t necessarily make sense that bone conduction headphones could damage hearing because of our incorrect perception of how hearing works. Let’s look more closely at how bone conduction headphones interact with our ears, why they can damage your hearing, and what you can do to keep it from happening.
Why Do Bone Conduction Headphones Damage Hearing?
To understand why bone conduction headphones can still damage your hearing, we must examine how hearing works and what hearing damage means.
How Does Hearing Work?
The normal process of hearing, as we use it with regular air-conduction headphones or earphones, involves the following six steps:
- Soundwaves are carried through the air and enter our outer ear, from where it goes into the ear canal.
- At the innermost end of the ear canal, the waves hit the eardrum, which causes it to vibrate.
- The vibrations pass from the eardrum into the middle ear, where three bones (the malleus, incus, and stapes bones) act as amplifiers for the vibrations.
- The vibrations pass from these bones to the cochlea, located in the inner ear.
- The cochlea is full of fluid and tiny hair cells. Different hair cells are sensitive to different types of sound. The fluid vibrates with the sound from the middle ear, causing the hair cells to bend and release chemicals.
- The auditory nerve picks up the chemicals, creating electrical signals that pass through the nerve to the brain, translating them into what we perceive as sound.
What Causes Hearing Damage?
Hearing damage can occur when any of the abovementioned organs are somehow damaged. A typical example is when someone sticks a cotton swab so deep into their ear that it penetrates and damages the eardrum.
Other problems can also damage different hearing organs, like the auditory nerve, which can be damaged by physical trauma or even disease.
How Bone Conduction Headphones Can Damage Hearing
Bone conduction headphones entirely bypass the outer ear, eardrum, and middle ear. They interact with the bones in your skull, from where the vibrations are picked up by the cochlea.
The hair cells in the cochlea bend as the fluid vibrates, and higher volumes make them bend more. But, as with any hair, the more they bend, the weaker they get. More fragile hair cells don’t bend as effectively anymore, and thus they don’t release the number of chemicals they should.
The consequence is reduced electrical signals that pass through the auditory nerve to your brain, causing hearing loss.
So, even though bone conduction headphones don’t interact with the eardrum, listening at high volumes can still cause hearing loss.
How Severe Is The Hearing Damage From Bone Conduction Headphones?
The severity of your hearing damage will depend on various factors, including how loud the headphones were and how long you listened to music at that volume.
However, there’s a common misconception that there’s less hearing damage from bone conduction headphones. Though that might seem to make sense, the opposite is true.
The type of headphones or earphones we use affects our perception of hearing because they determine how much external noise is drowned out. Less external noise will make the sound from our headphones come across much more clearly, which means we need less volume to hear it properly.
That’s why headphones with excellent noise cancelation features don’t need as much volume to deliver clear and perceivably “loud” sound to our ears.
Bone conduction headphones are the exact opposite of noise-canceling. They leave our ears wide open to external noise, and that’s on purpose because it’s one of the primary reasons why someone would use bone conduction. But the side-effect is that more noise interferes with our music, leading to the temptation to increase the volume above safe listening levels.
It gets even worse when you consider that headphone manufacturers are already pushing the volume of their bone conduction models for this very reason. So, you’re using headphones that are already amplified but don’t seem loud enough, so you increase the volume even more. These vibrations are blasting directly into your cochlea and damaging your hearing.
We all have a maximum tolerance level for volume, and it’s easy to determine when you’ve reached that point when listening over regular headphones. Your eardrums will complain, you may hear distortion, and there might even be a pain to tell you that you’re pushing it too far. Many of those factors are eliminated with bone conduction, so there’s a greater risk of causing damage.
But Doesn’t Hearing Damage Depend On The Eardrum?
Hearing damage can occur due to a ruptured eardrum, and many of us believe that ruptured eardrums are why we shouldn’t listen to music at high volume. But that is not the case.
Though loud noises can cause ruptured eardrums, those must be extremely loud – approximately 165 decibels. That’s more or less the equivalent of hearing a gunshot at close range.
Headphones, including bone conduction models, have an approximate decibel range of 97 to 107 decibels. Some models can reach 130 decibels, but these are not very common. Furthermore, most audio players (like smartphones) limit the maximum volume to be considerably lower. So, not even regular headphones should rupture your eardrums under normal circumstances.
However, your cochlea can be damaged by volumes as low as 70 decibels if you listen to those volumes over a prolonged period of time. That’s why hearing damage is more closely related to the cochlea than the eardrums, and any headphones can easily push above that limit.
How To Not Damage Your Hearing With Bone Conduction Headphones
It’s easy to avoid damaging your hearing when listening to music over bone conduction headphones: just don’t push the volume too high. If you keep the volume to safe levels, you can listen as much as you want without harming your hearing.
But what about situations where you don’t have regular or noise-canceling headphones, and you can’t hear your music clearly?
Earplugs are an easy solution. You can pick up a pair of earplugs relatively cheaply, and some are excellent at noise cancelation. So, when you want to hear your music clearly with little to no interference from outside noise, don’t increase the volume; invest in earplugs instead.
Bone conduction headphones can cause hearing damage. Though they won’t affect your eardrums in any way, high volumes will impact your cochlea, and you won’t always notice when you push bone conduction headphones above safe listening levels. So, instead of increasing your headphones’ volume, use earplugs. Your cochlea will thank you.