Noise-Canceling Headphones: Why Does It Cause Headache?

Have you been having headaches while listening to music with your noise-canceling headphones lately? That calming, satisfying feeling where you just cover the external noise of the world with such a small device. It takes away the feeling of exposure and isolates you into an experience that you want to be in. Then suddenly, that feeling becomes a throbbing, unbearable headache that makes you want to just pull the device out of your ears.

You take a break, and suddenly, the feeling is gone. Headphones are convenient and are one of the most used peripherals around the world. However, there can be times when the flaws of technology start manifesting themselves in rather exasperating ways.

In this blog, we will be focusing on how headphones, specifically noise-canceling headphones, can give you a headache. We will also be discussing how you can use these popular headphones without the fear of their side effects. But first, we need to introduce noise-canceling headphones and explain why they are a popular choice when choosing headphones.

How Does Noise-Canceling Headphones Work?

noise-canceling headphones
Photo credits: Matthias Oberholzer

Noise-canceling headphones are a godsend to those who prefer to listen to music at lower volumes but still want to hear it crystal clear. How they work is pretty simple. They use the magic of science to eliminate external sounds that can muddle the audio you’re trying to enjoy. Enjoy your music without turning up the volume and damaging your hearing!

🎧 External sounds

Noise-canceling headphones reduce or cancel out the external sounds. They do this by using a microphone to detect external sounds. Then, converted into an equal, inverted waveform sound. The inverted waveform cancels out the external sound waves, so you don’t have to turn it up so high just in order to hear what’s being played clearly.

🎧 Adaptive filter

These types of headphones also have an adaptive filter feature. This works by removing unwanted noise from a recording before your ears ever hear it. In short, even if you poorly record a piece of music, you’d still listen to it much better than would otherwise be possible!

Reasons For Discomfort While Wearing Them

The opposite of sound is discomfort. It’s possible that your headphones are too tight or heavy. Similarly, some people find noise-canceling headphones to be a little hot and stuffy to wear for long periods, or the sensation might not be as pleasurable as you expected. There’s also the possibility that your headphones just need adjusting. Or perhaps they’re making your ears feel too hot or itchy. But these are all noises from people who have never worn noise-canceling headphones before, which is why we know them to be false.

If you’ve ever spent more than five hours on a plane wearing noise-canceling headphones, you probably woke up with a headache. That’s the thing about noise-canceling: sometimes it can lead to ear pain, headaches, and balance issues.

The great news is that with the right information and listening techniques, you can prevent your noise-canceling headphones from giving you headaches. Here are a few simple methods to avoid overdoing it on the background noise reduction:

Ways To Prevent Headphones Discomfort

Noise-canceling headphones

If you’re prone to headaches and migraines, you should avoid using noise-canceling headphones as much as possible. If your use of the headphones has induced a headache or migraine, take them off immediately and rest.

For everyone else, here are some measures you can take to prevent headaches while still enjoying the sweet silence that comes with noise-canceling headphones:

👂🏼 Limiting the use of noise-canceling headphones

Please don’t use them for too long. Like how extended exposure to loud noises is terrible for your hearing, extended exposure to silence may be bad for your head. Noise-canceling headphones block out noise so well that those sounds will not be reaching your ears at all. And if they don’t reach your ears, they won’t stimulate the brain’s centers for sound processing. This lack of stimulation could possibly result in a headache. To prevent this nuisance from happening, limit your use of noise-canceling headphones to 30 minutes at a time (with an hour break between uses). Longer than that, and you might end up with a headache!

👂🏼 Maintaining a sound pressure

Keep the sound pressure level below 80 decibels (dB). Headphones that play audio at higher volumes increase your risk of hearing loss. This starts from ear pain, headaches, and balance issues in extreme cases of prolonged use. To avoid this problem, keep the volume as low as possible while still being able to hear what’s going on around you.

👂🏼 Assessing the presence of a headache

If you are having a headache, it’s better to use your headphones in moderation. It makes sense that if frequent or continuous exposure to sound cancellation is terrible for you, then it would be better not to listen through those headphones very often. Make sure not to go over the “30 minutes at a time” limit mentioned above. 

Keep in mind that if you do get headaches from using noise-canceling headphones, it may be best not to use them at all and give yourself a rest period after each use. This is to wear off any residual effects from the last listening sessions before going back in again with both earbuds ablaze with sound cancellation action. If you need to use them and feel any symptoms other than headache, then stop using them until they go away or reduce. Then you can take shorter intervals when using them again (but not too short).

Remember, the whole point of noise-canceling headphones is that they give you a better listening experience without listening to high volume levels. Even if you don’t get headaches from using noise-canceling headphones, it’s still advisable to take regular breaks every hour or so. Just do something else for a while before putting your noise-canceling headphones back on.

Protecting Your Hearing From Both Real And Artificial Noises

In short, try to avoid using your noise-canceling headphones in noisy environments. If you want to use them in a particularly loud environment, keep in mind that these types of headphones can mask the sounds around you, like sirens and warnings. If wearing your headphones means missing out on hearing these important noises, maybe it’s best not to wear them at all. As mentioned, don’t turn up the volume too loud when using noise-canceling headphones, and never wear them for more than 1-2 hours at a time.

Now, some of you may be sitting there thinking, “Noise-canceling headphones? What a waste of money. I’d just stick to my earbuds”. There is a way to enjoy them without feeling like an invisible vice grip is crushing your head. It involves moderation! These devices are like alcohol or chocolate cake: they taste great, but they’ll give you a headache if you overindulge.

Sure, there’s nothing wrong with setting aside an hour or two for yourself each day if that’s what gets you through your most painful meetings or makes your commute slightly more tolerable than usual. But if you’re spending more than eight hours a day in the office with these headphones on, we’ve got some other things to talk about, like how much strenuous drudgery you’re subjecting yourself to!

Headphone Options That Limit Headaches

If you’re determined to minimize or prevent the chances of getting a headache, as opposed to just thinking headphones give you headaches because this is what you want to believe for some reason, there are various other choices out there. You can always try:

🟢 Bone conduction

Bone conduction headphones use the bone behind your ears to transmit vibrations and sound. They can be a little creepy, but they don’t put any pressure on your ear. 

🟢 Earbuds

Earbuds don’t go in your ear canal at all but sit right outside it instead. Most people consider these an abomination. But if your primary concern is not getting headaches from wearing headphones, they might be worth trying. 

🟢 Studio type

Studio standard headphones, which are used for long sessions in the studio, are one of your best bets for avoiding headaches. However, these do cause a few more bucks compared to our other options because, as their name suggests, they are mainly used for all that complicated studio work.

🟢 Memory foam pads

Headphones with memory foam pads can also reduce a lot of strain. This is because they place your ears in a position where they are modulated to fit them appropriately. Some memory foam pads can be bought separately, making things easier for those who already have their headphones. If your noise-canceling headphones feel like a medieval torture device, but you can’t afford the other options, you can choose to buy these foams instead. 

Other Reasons For Headache

If the reasons listed above don’t apply to you, then there may be other factors involved that could be the ones causing the headaches. Some usual scenarios and their possible causes will be listed below:

🔴 Device overuse (cellphone, computer, etc.)

Long periods of using your device can contribute to or even directly cause headaches. If you’ve been doing tasks involving both your headphones and your screen for long periods, then it is very much possible that both factors caused the headache. If you’ve been watching your newfound favorite series or grinding for collectibles in a video game for long periods, then it can lead your senses to go through an overload or overstrain. This only applies to you if you have been using your device along with your headphones simultaneously. If you’re only using your noise-canceling headphones for listening to music exclusively, then the culprit would be obvious.

🔴 Environment

The environment you were in can also cause headaches depending on how strenuous it can be to your senses. For example, if your bus is traveling through a rough road while using your headphones, then the excessive motion within the vehicle could have caused the headache or had a part in it. Temperature can also play a significant factor in the environmental cause. This is because if you have been staying in an environment that feels like you’re being cooked or being refrigerated, then it could have caused the headache. Make sure that you are comfortable in your environment while attempting to relax or casually listen to music to minimize the risks of headaches.

🔴 Existing medical issues

Underlying medical conditions such as the previously mentioned chronic migraines can cause headaches while using headphones. The usage of headphones can also trigger underlying conditions and indirectly cause headaches, again, such as chronic migraines. These medical conditions can range from mild and temporary illnesses. Such illnesses are the common cold to possibly permanent conditions such as visual conditions like myopia, hyperopia, and astigmatism. If you’ve been experiencing headaches even when not using headphones, then you may want to see your doctor, as it can be a sign of an illness that you are not aware of. 

Bottom Line

Noise-canceling headphones are one of the best choices for an outstanding auditory experience. This is because of their ability to isolate the sounds you want into your ears. However, they come with the price of causing headaches if you overuse them. This goes for any kind of device or product, as too much of one thing can be detrimental to one’s health and comfort. 

Even though noise-canceling headphones are as impressive as they sound, they should be used wisely and in moderation to prevent headaches. Restraint prevents you from developing a headache and prevents usage that can lead to your headphones breaking too. So take a rest, and let your ears feel the air once in a while.

If you still are getting headaches and ear pain, check this next article to know the effect of headphones on wax build-up.

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