Headphone culture: Why Alka Yagnik’s advice should not fall on deaf ears

Bollywood playback singer Alka Yagnik recently revealed that she has been diagnosed with a rare form of hearing loss, a condition which has forced her to cancel all her concerts, including one in London, and put her singing career in peril.

In a social media post, she described the diagnosis as a “sudden major setback” that caught her by surprise and shared that she was still coming to terms with it.

The National Award-winning singer also urged her “fans and young colleagues” to be mindful of their hearing health, cautioning against prolonged exposure to loud music and excessive use of headphones.

Doctors warn that listening to music at a high volume on headphones can lead to hearing loss, including the ‘sudden deafness’ Yagnik has been diagnosed with.

What’s sudden deafness?

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), also known as sudden deafness, is an unexplained rapid loss of hearing typically occurring in one ear over a period of 72 hours or less. It is considered a medical emergency and immediate evaluation and treatment may improve the chances of recovery.

Symptoms usually include a sudden blocked ear, often overnight or within a few days, sometimes accompanied by tinnitus and/or dizziness. People developing this condition often link it to the common cold or some other viral infection, which delays their visit to a doctor.

The best time to begin therapy for this condition is the first 24 to 48 hours after experiencing hearing loss, or at least within the first week.

headphone culture: why alka yagnik’s advice should not fall on deaf ears

Dr Neepa Vellimuttam, consultant (ear, nose and throat) at SL Raheja Hospital in Mumbai’s Mahim says, “There is a direct link between listening to loud music for a prolonged duration and hearing loss. Listening to loud music with headphones on for a long time can damage the delicate sensory organs within the ear, leading to sensorineural hearing loss."

“Noise induced hearing loss can be unilateral or bilateral and is a permanent condition. It is commonly seen in younger age-groups who listen to loud music continuously”.

According to Vellimuttam, sounds over 85 decibels (dB) can cause damage to “our hearing organs, especially when they are exposed to it for more than eight hours continuously”.

Hair cells within the cochlea get fatigued on exposure to loud noise and need time to recover.

“If they are chronically exposed to loud noise, they don’t get enough recovery time and lose their function, leading to permanent hearing loss,” she adds.

Explaining further, she says listening to music continuously on headphones at a loud volume can cause tinnitus, which is a continuous ringing or buzzing sound in one or both ears. This can result in inability to hear low decibel sounds.

“If you are unable to hear properly on the phone, it can indicate you are suffering from some degree of hearing loss. One can also experience difficulties in following conversations in a noisy environment,” says Vellimuttam.

SSHL differs from other types of hearing issues such as conductive hearing loss and mixed hearing loss, says Dr Chandra Veer Singh, consultant otorhinolaryngologist and head & neck oncologist at Wockhardt Hospitals, Mira Road, Mumbai.

headphone culture: why alka yagnik’s advice should not fall on deaf ears

While conductive hearing loss is caused by issues in the outer or middle ear, mixed hearing loss involves both sensorineural and conductive components. Unlike the former, which can often be treated with surgery or medication, SSHL is usually permanent because the damaged hair cells in the inner ear do not regenerate.

“Consistent exposure to high decibel levels such as loud honking, industrial machinery, or firecrackers can damage the hair cells in the inner ear permanently," says Dr Singh.

“A typical case might involve a middle-aged adult who has worked in a noisy environment for many years. For instance, a 45-year-old factory worker experiencing progressive hearing loss might be diagnosed with SSHL after an audiometry test reveals significant hearing deficits in both ears,” adds Dr Singh.

Treatment varies from patient to patient

According to Dr Arpit Sharma, consultant (ENT) and head & neck surgeon at PD Hinduja Hospital, Mahim, Mumbai, while cases pertaining to sensorineural hearing loss are common nowadays, the number of patients diagnosed with sudden hearing loss is limited to 2-3 per month.

“It is very difficult to predict the success of treatment since the response varies from person to person. However, in cases of failure to restore hearing, rehabilitation with the help of hearing aids or cochlear implants can be done,” he says.

Dr Rajendra Waghela, consultant (ENT) and endoscopic surgeon, Medicover Hospitals, Navi Mumbai, says that constant use of earphones will set the stage for bacteria and fungi in the ear canal. This can further raise the risk of ‘otitis externa’ or swimmer's ear (an inflammation and infection of the ear canal).

According to Dr Vicky S Khattar, consultant (ENT) at Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai, “Our ears are designed for ambient sound; and targeted sound very close to the ear often results in hearing loss. It's like shining a very bright light close to the eyes so much that it becomes jarring.

“The external ear's shape is crucial because it directs sound waves toward the eardrum. In actuality, sound is filtered several times before it reaches the ear due to the intricately crafted shape of the ear, the ear canal, which connects the exterior portion of the ear to the eardrum, and the angle of the eardrum.

“A headset or earphone placed too close to the ear interferes with the natural order of things. In any case, an excessive amount of sound near the ear is extremely unhealthy.”

Khattar is also of the opinion that the treatment should begin as soon as possible.

“We have found that the best outcomes for sensorineural hearing loss come from treatment given within the first 24 to 48 hours of the condition. Treatment should begin no later than the first week.

“But research and practical experience have consistently demonstrated that steroids are the only long-lasting, stand-alone treatment for this condition that has proven effective over time," adds Dr Khattar.

Safe listening practices

So, what’s the safe way to use headphones?

“For those who like to use headphones, they should only use it at low to moderate volumes. The level of sound should not exceed the safe level shown on your device. It’s safer to avoid using headphones continuously for more than 2 hours and one should take breaks of 5-10 minutes every hour,” suggests Vellimuttam.

Dr Sheetal Goyal, a neurologist at Mumbai’s Wockhardt Hospitals, highlights the importance of safe listening practices to avoid hearing loss.

“Follow the 60/60 rule: listen at no more than 60% of maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes at a time. Taking regular breaks, using noise-cancelling headphones to avoid increasing volume in noisy environments, and being aware of early signs of hearing damage are also crucial,” she says.

Dr Waghela also advises taking breaks after every 20 minutes and reducing the volume while using headphones.

“Try to invest in high-quality noise-cancelling headphones that help with clear sound even at lower volumes and minimise ear damage,” he says.

Experts also advise cleaning the headphones on a regular basis to avoid getting ear infections.

More than 90% of people forget to clean the headphones, earbuds, after using them for the day, which puts the ear at risk of infections, opines Dr Khattar.

“There is a lot of emerging data linking the usage of headphones and earphones with sensorineural hearing loss. While we lack multicentric data regarding the same, it shall soon be available with all the research going into this aspect of medical science,” he adds.

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