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Why do noise canceling headphones hurt my ears?



A lady peels off her noise-canceling headphones and grimaces in pain.
Gang Liu / Shutterstock

Do your new noise canceling headphones put a painful feeling of “pressure”

; on your ears? It turns out that your mind is playing tricks on you.

Over the past decade, noise canceling headphones have become more common, more affordable, and more effective. But as headphones get better at filtering out external sounds, more and more people are complaining that they cause earaches, headaches and a feeling of ‘pressure’ in the inner ear. These complaints date back to 2009, so why hasn’t this issue been resolved yet? Well, first we need to understand how noise canceling headphones work.

ANC headphones listen for external sounds and cancel them

Contrary to popular belief, headphones with active noise cancellation (or ANC) do not block noise by physically shielding your ear from external sound waves. They are not like fuzzy shooters’ earmuffs; they are just small pieces of plastic. So how do ANC headphones cancel the sound?

Like light, sound travels through the air in “waves”. And just as different light frequencies are recognized as different colors, different sound frequencies are perceived as different pitches.

The point is, sound is a “pressure wave”. Unlike light, sound can move through solid objects such as walls, water, and plastic headphones. Low-frequency sound waves are especially good at moving through solid objects (think a bass drum), but high-frequency sounds (such as the annoying sound of a CRT TV) aren’t great at moving through objects.

A diagram showing how noise cancellation works
Wikipedia

ANC headphones are thus intended to eliminate low-frequency sounds. They do this by monitoring your noise environment with a built-in microphone, identifying the frequencies of said sounds and blowing your ears with an anti-noise wave that suppresses the unwanted external noises.

This sounds complicated, but it is easy to understand. An anti-noise wave is basically a mirror version of the sound your headphones are trying to eliminate. It is the same frequency (pitch) of the unwanted noise, but with a reverse polarity (again a mirror version). When two sounds of opposite polarity meet, they are both canceled. It’s weird, but that’s science.

Why do my ears feel ‘busy’ in an airplane?

Okay, so ANC headphones suppress noise by pumping an anti-noise wave into your ears. But why do they hurt people’s ears and cause headaches?

Most people describe the feeling of ANC headphones as a type of “pressure” on the ears, like the changes in atmospheric pressure when taking off in an airplane or diving deep into the ocean. So it’s important to understand how air pressure works (and its relationship to sound perception) before trying to figure out why ANC headphones put “pressure” on your ears.

Atmospheric pressure (also called air pressure and barometric pressure) is the force exerted on a surface by the atmosphere. Our Earth’s gravity is constantly pulling the atmosphere down, so the air in low-altitude climates (the bottom of the ocean) is denser than high-altitude (a mountain top or an airplane in flight).

Atmospheric density is not the cause of painful pressure in your ears. That feeling of “pressure” is caused by the difference between the air pressure in your inner ear and the air pressure in your environment. If you are at a great height, the air in your ears wants to escape. If you are at a low altitude and under a lot of pressure, your inner ears need more air so they don’t collapse. When you “pop” your ears, you just equalize your in-ear air pressure to the air pressure of your surroundings, and the feeling of “pressure” disappears.

ANC headphones do not put “pressure” on your ears

But your brain doesn’t rely solely on earaches and headaches to determine when atmospheric pressure changes. It also looks at how much your middle ear vibrates.

When you first go up in an airplane, your ear has more airtightness than your surroundings. As a result, your inner ear looks a bit like a balloon, has a lot of pressure on it, and doesn’t vibrate much. This lack of vibration results in reduced low-frequency hearing, so your brain usually works under the assumption that a loss in low-frequency hearing indicates a change in atmospheric pressure. (This is also why you can hear better on an airplane after opening your ears.)

A man enjoying the sweet sound of his noise canceling headphones
Kite_rin / Shutterstock

Remember how ANC headphones try to suppress low-frequency ambient noise, such as the sound of a motor? Sometimes this can cause your brain to sense a change in air pressure.

Of course, your brain doesn’t actually receive feelings of pain or discomfort. So it starts mimicking those feelings to encourage you to pop your ears. Because popping your ears doesn’t solve the lack of low-frequency ambient noise, the feeling of pain and pressure can increase until you take off your ANC headphones.

Some people are not made for ANC headphones

Some people do not experience discomfort while using ANC headphones. Others get used to the feeling over time, but some people can’t get past the feeling of “pressure” that ANC headphones can cause.

So if your brand new ANC headphones are causing a feeling of “pressure”, earache, jaw pain, and headache, then your options for dealing with the situation are minimal. You could use the headphones for about 15 minutes and hope your brain adjusts, or you could return the headphones and reinvest your money in noise-isolating earplugs or a pair of shooting earmuffs to put over a regular pair of earplugs.

Keep in mind that even if a feeling of pain is “made up” by your brain, it doesn’t make the pain any less real. If your brain refuses to adjust to ANC headphones, then you should leave it at that. There’s no reason to torture yourself (or possibly hurt yourself) just to block out ambient noise while listening to podcasts.

Sources: The Friedel Chronicles / Medium, Wikipedia, Starkey




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