Can Noise-Canceling Headphones Make Some People Sick?

written by Skye Sherman - Jul 5, 2021

Photo Credit: by Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com
Photo Credit: by Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com

In the age of modern technology, most of the developments are conveniences that enrich and improve our everyday lives. We have screens in multiple forms: TVs, tablets, smartphones, computers, and more. We also have headphones to listen to our videos, music, and more.

For most people, headphones are a wonderful invention and make everyday life easier. When noise-canceling headphones hit the scene, it became even easier to tune out the outside world. Audio quality got even better, with less distractions from the world around you while you’re trying to listen to something.

But for some people, noise-canceling headphones are not such a pleasant experience. If you’ve ever put on a pair of headphones, activated the noise-canceling feature, and felt not impressed but sort of woozy, disoriented, or even nauseous, you’re not alone.

Noise-canceling headphones can make some people feel unwell, and in this article we’ll take a look at this phenomenon and why it happens.

How do noise-canceling headphones work?

Before we go any further, we should first take a quick look at the science behind noise-canceling headphones. How exactly does this work?

An article by Sound Guys explains, “Headphones [have] tiny microphones on the outside of your headphones. They listen to the ambient noise around you … The headphones then create sound that is exactly opposite to that sound wave (the anti-phase) to cancel it out so that all you should hear is the music coming from your headphones—and not anything going on outside.”

In other words, noise-canceling headphones work by listening to the noise around you, reversing or neutralizing it, and playing it back to you so that you hear nothing. This can provide a better listening experience because what you want to hear (your music or video) is not competing with the noise in your environmental surroundings. Instead, that noise is nullified and all you hear is the audio you’re trying to hear.

This technology works best in theory, and its actual application is less than perfect. Still, noise-canceling technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, and the listening experience is getting better and better… at least for some people.

What is eardrum suck?

It seems that the main reason behind feeling sick due to noise-canceling headphones is because of eardrum suck.

An article in The New York Times’ Wirecutter explains eardrum suck this way: “Many people can just buy top-brand noise-cancelling headphones, put them on, and enjoy their next flight in peace. But some people may find that they can’t stand wearing noise-cancelling headphones for more than a few minutes because they feel pressure in their eardrums—a phenomenon we call ‘eardrum suck’ because it feels like the pressure decrease you experience when riding a high-speed elevator.”

While most people experience a slight sensation from putting on noise-canceling headphones, what we’re talking about here is beyond that. The pain can actually be intense and can make people feel ill. The experience is more than just eardrum pain: some people report headaches, dizziness, motion sickness, vertigo, nausea, and even vomiting when they wear noise-canceling headphones.

Still, the evidence suggests that eardrum suck is psychosomatic. In other words, there’s nothing bad, damaging, or harmful actually happening to your ears; it’s just your brains telling you that you’re in pain when you’re actually not. This is because there’s not actually any measurable difference in air pressure when you’re wearing noise-canceling headphones. So the “eardrum suck” feeling is not necessarily real.

The Wirecutter article explains, “After speaking with some engineers who have worked on noise-cancelling headphones, we’ve surmised that it likely occurs because of the way some people’s brains process the dramatic and uneven change in sound that happens when they turn on the active noise cancellation. … The brain may interpret this shift as a decompression, and it tells your eardrums they’re being sucked out, even though they’re just fine. But the brain rules the body, so pain is the result.”

Can noise-canceling headphones make some people sick?

Active noise cancellation, which is the name for the technology behind noise-canceling headphones, is a pleasurable bit of progress for most people. But for others, including those who experience eardrum suck, they don’t understand the appeal because the noise-canceling technology is actually uncomfortable for them.

The Sound Guys share evidence from a doctor that those who experience eardrum suck or don’t enjoy the noise-canceling listening experience aren’t crazy.

The article says, “New York ear, nose, and throat doctor Sarah Stackpole explained that noise cancelling technology may transmit extremely low-frequency vibrations that stimulate balance receptors connected to our ears’ stereocilia, or hearing hair cells. What then happens is that these receptors falsely communicate to the brain that the head is moving, despite one’s eyes being fixed. Mixed messages like this can trick the brain into thinking it’s experiencing motion and thus, dizziness.”

So what do such people do? If you have an unpleasant experience when using noise-canceling headphones, you have a few options. You can either buy a lower-quality pair of noise-canceling headphones, because the active noise cancellation doesn’t work as well and therefore won’t affect you as heavily. Some headphone models actually have adjustable noise cancellation so you can turn the technology up or down to your desired comfort level. Sure, these are less effective, but if they’re more comfortable for you then they’re doing their job (and they’re often cheaper).

Another option is noise-canceling earbuds like Apple AirPods, instead of over-the-ear headphones. Some users report that they don’t experience as much eardrum suck from earbuds as they do traditional headphones. Otherwise, you may not be able to use this technology at all, and will have to stick to regular old headphones. Make sure you buy headphones from a place with a fair return policy so that you can return your headphones if they don’t work out for you.

Diseases that may be caused by noise-canceling headphones

It’s important to be aware that improper use of any headphones, whether they have active noise cancellation technology or not, can be damaging to your ears and lead to hearing loss.

Some people report ear infections as a result of wearing noise-canceling headphones. While this is not the case for most people, it’s something to be aware of. Buying used headphones or sharing them with others can both lead to ear infections. Disinfect your headphones regularly and keep your ears clean, too, to help prevent ear infection. Your doctor may recommend ear care medications if necessary.

Another thing you should do while wearing headphones is to always be aware of your surroundings, no matter how good your music is!

AudioMav explains it like this: “Not only can it be dangerous if you don’t hear a horn honking, but you also might not hear traffic sounds that would clue you into someone coming your way when you have the right of way to cross the street. Furthermore, those with ill intents might take advantage of you by reaching into your bag, or approaching you without warning to do harm.”

AudioMav also shares that there’s another risk factor to headphones (and other technologies, such as your smartphone). “Did you know that your Bluetooth technology is very possibly exposing you to radiation? More research needs to be explored but wireless headsets with Bluetooth capabilities are believed to emit low-frequency radiations. … The World Health Organization found in 2018 that radiation from radio frequency can create the same kind of biological effects that carcinogens create.”

This is potentially dangerous and very scary. It’s likely that exposure to such low levels of radiation will not have serious side effects, but taking regular breaks from technology, disconnecting from your devices, and getting out into nature is never a bad idea.

An article from Columbia Asia Hospitals adds, “Some of the harmful ways in which earphones can affect our ears are: NIHL (Noise-Induced Hearing Loss), tinnitus, hyperacusis, hearing loss, dizziness, ear infection, excessive ear wax, pain in the ears, effect on the brain.”

No matter how good the sound is, you don’t want hearing loss or an ear infection as a result of using headphones the wrong way. Below, find some tips for proper use to protect your hearing.

Tips for using headphones properly and how to protect your hearing

Above all, the most important thing you can do to take care of your hearing is not to wear headphones for prolonged periods of time with loud music. Blasting sound into your ears, especially over long periods of time, can cause noise-induced hearing loss. This can be irreversible, irreparable damage and even lead to deafness. But it’s completely preventable.

Not having to turn your music up as loud is actually one of the benefits of noise-canceling headphones. Sometimes the only reason you have it up so loud is because you are trying to drown out external noise to be able to hear it. With noise-canceling headphones, that’s not the case.

If you want to use noise-canceling headphones, give them a try first to make sure they don’t make you feel sick. Even if you feel a little disoriented when first wearing them, that’s okay. Try them out for a few days and you might get used to it, because active noise cancellation is a new technology that our bodies aren’t used to. Use them responsibly and always have something playing that you’re listening to when the noise cancellation feature is activated.

But if you give them a try and still don’t feel right, noise-cancelling headphones may not be for you. Instead, opt for lower-tech headphones. Sure, the sound won’t be quite as good as the fancy and advanced headphones, but it’s worth it to keep your ears healthy and your hearing intact for the rest of your life.

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DISCLAIMER

While the above article is based on thorough research, we do not claim to offer a substitute for medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider. The article was written for information and educational purposes only. We aim to provide helpful information to our readers, but cannot provide a treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of any sort, and we are in no way indicating that any particular drug is safe or appropriate for you and your individual needs. To receive professional medical attention, you must see a doctor.