Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Cause Tinnitus?

Noise cancelling headphones are safer for your ears than regular headphones. They’re designed to block out the loud sounds around you that can potentially cause hearing damage.

However, this also means they can block out the softer, more subtle sounds such as your music. As a result, wearing noise cancelling headphones for long periods of time could cause you to develop something called tinnitus. Let’s examine why you need to be careful with your choice of headphones and help you understand how to avoid tinnitus.

Noise cancelling headphones can cause tinnitus if they are not used correctly. In this post we discuss what noise cancelling headphones are and how they work, as well as some of the common causes of tinnitus.

What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when none exists. It is a symptom not disease and therefore, can have many causes such as trauma to the head, ear infections, nasal infections (like sinusitis), fluid in ears, high blood pressure, anxiety and stress or even side effects from medications. Some people suffer from continuous ringing in the ear or buzzing sound. Some hear clicks, or crickets chirping. Others experience squealing sounds like uncoiling strips of rubber.  

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus can be caused by a number of factors. Some of the most common are:

  • Exposure to loud noise: This is the most common cause of tinnitus. While some people may only experience it after being exposed to extremely loud noises, repeated exposure to louder-than-normal sounds can also lead to chronic tinnitus.
  • Ear and sinus infections: Infections in the ear or sinus can cause inflammation that stimulates the nerves in the ear, which can lead to tinnitus. In some cases, once the infection clears up, so does the tinnitus.
  • Earwax blockage: Excessive earwax buildup can cause hearing loss and lead to tinnitus. A physician can remove impacted earwax safely.
  • Age-related hearing loss: Hearing loss due to aging is referred to as presbycusis, and it’s one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. It generally develops slowly over time and is often accompanied by tinnitus.
  • Jaw problems (TMJ): Tinnitus is sometimes linked to TMJ disorders — problems with the jaw joint that are typically caused by injury or stress. When TMJ causes tinnitus, it’s usually experienced on the same side of the jaw as the joint.

How Do Noise-Canceling Headphones Work?

Noise cancelling headphones are devices designed to reduce the amount of ambient noise that enters a person’s ears. This helps them block out the noise and focus on whatever audio content they are listening to.

Noise-canceling headphones use tiny microphones to detect external sounds. They then generate a sound wave with the opposite phase that cancels out some of the noise. This is called active noise control or active noise reduction (ANR).

Noise-canceling headphones are, in many ways, the opposite of speakers. A speaker converts electric current into movement that makes air vibrate, producing sound waves in the air. A microphone does the reverse: It converts movement in the air into electric current.

Active noise control works best with constant background noises such as fans, motors and airplane engines. That’s why you see so many people wearing ANR headphones on airplanes — it lets them relax, watch a movie and not be disturbed by engine noise or crying babies. The downside of active noise control is that it requires power, usually from batteries.

Passive noise isolation (or passive noise reduction) is just like it sounds — isolating yourself from unwanted noise using objects such as foam earplugs, rubber earplugs or muff-style headphones that cover your ears completely. These methods are great for loud but infrequent sounds such as jackhammers or gunfire.

Related: Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones for Studying

Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Cause Tinnitus?

Noise cancelling headphones help block unwanted external noise. They’re a good choice when you want to enjoy your music in peace.

But is there a downside to using them? Can noise cancelling headphones cause tinnitus?

Tinnitus can be described as the sensation of hearing ringing, buzzing or hissing sounds, even though no external sound is present. Some people only experience tinnitus occasionally, while others have it on a daily basis.

Tinnitus can be caused by various medical conditions and can also be a side effect of certain medications. But there’s no evidence that noise cancelling (or any other type of) headphones can cause it.

Regular headphones block outside noise by creating an airtight seal around your ears, which prevents sound waves from reaching your eardrum. Noise cancelling headphones use tiny microphones to pick up the external noise and then generate a sound wave that’s 180 degrees out of phase with the incoming noise wave. This “cancels” the outside noise and allows you to listen to the music without having to turn it up too loud.

If you’re worried about tinnitus, you should pay special attention to how loud you play your music on your headphones or earbuds, as this is the most common cause of tinnitus.

The link between noise-cancelling headphones and tinnitus isn’t completely understood, but some research suggests that it could be related to a particular type of brain injury called a cochlear nerve injury. This occurs when there’s a sudden loud sound in a person’s ear, causing their eardrum to burst.

The pressure wave from this burst can then travel to the cochlea and damage the cochlear nerve, which can result in temporary hearing loss. It’s also possible that certain types of headphones may cause tinnitus in some people who are predisposed to developing it.

Related: Best Headphones for Hearing Impaired

Best Noise Cancelling Headphones for Tinnitus

  • Nuheara IQbuds™ 2 MAX
  • Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
  • Bose Quiet Comfort 20
  • Sony WH-1000XM3
  • Soundcore Life Q30

Conclusion

In conclusion, a person who is suffering from tinnitus should see a doctor for a diagnosis. If the person has tinnitus, they should avoid any situations that can cause it to worsen. This includes using noise cancelling headphones while driving, or in loud environments where they may cause more problems than they solve. A person with tinnitus may also find it difficult to sleep at night if they cannot hear the noises that are usually present in their environment.