Can Noise Canceling Headphones Give You Headaches?

Many people believe that noise-canceling headphones help them focus on their work better and enjoy music far more. However, people are still worried about whether this mechanism might also cause headaches especially when you consider how intense the devices can be.

Yes, noise-canceling headphones can cause headaches if they are pressing against certain nerves or are too tight around your ears. Moreover, headphones with the active noise cancelation feature have been reported to produce soundwaves that can give you headaches, especially when listening at high volumes.

The primary purpose of this article is to help you understand specifically how headaches can form if you use noise-canceling headphones. This is not to discourage their purchase entirely, but rather to provide you with the necessary information when attempting to make an informed purchase.

Related: Will My Headphones Work After Being Washed?

Why Do I Get Headaches With Noise-Canceling Headphones?

It’s quite common that people experience getting headaches when they wear noise-canceling headphones. Some people don’t recognize when this happens, but to others, this can become quite the problem. If you’re facing this issue then do not worry since this is a common occurrence and not serious.

Several attributes and facets are inherent in noise-canceling headphones that cause them to increase your potential to get headaches from using them. The most important of these features is the use of active noise cancelation or ANC. Something quite common in most noise-canceling headphones.

Devices that have the ANC or active noise cancelation feature can create extra sound waves that mitigate external noise significantly. This makes it harder for your brain to recognize these noises and usually it strains twice as hard to get an understanding of what is happening or being said.

Because ANC causes the brain to strain harder and work doubly hard to work at the additional sound waves there is a chance that it might begin to experience some form of pain. Additionally, a tight headphone band can also place stress around your head and temple directly adding to headaches.

This is the reason why you experience headaches whenever you use noise-canceling headphones. Specific issues inherent to the style of headphones make it far more likely to do damage. And strains your brain and nerves on your head to cause this outcome.

Mechanical Breakdown of Problematic Features within Noise-Cancelling Headphones.

So far we’ve discussed merely surface level ideas when it comes to why noise-cancelling headphones particularly trouble your brain, and the various nerves in your head, to cause headaches. However, I think it’s simply not a sufficient explanation and further information will be beneficial to the discussion.

Electronically Canceling External Noise with Additional Sound Waves

Illustration by Tom Connell

As we discussed earlier as well that noise-canceling headphones use a method that mitigates the influence of external noise on the sound that you are listening to with your headphones. There are two forms of this mitigation method that are currently used within the headphone market.

The first method involves the use of something known as soundproofing. This is all called Passive Noise Cancelation, or PNC for short. Within this sort of noise cancellation, the effect hinges on the ability of the headphones to cover the ears and act as a material barrier that resists outside noise and blocks it from being sensed.

Passive Noise Cancelation, which usually exists in all noise-canceling headphones, does not typically cause headaches. And is perhaps what we most traditional attribute as the main effect that noise-canceling headphones have on us.

However, this is not solely the feature that noise-canceling headphones use to stop or mitigate external noise. Rather a second electronic method is also adopted, this is called Active Noise Cancelation or ANC. This method is far more complex than the previous and is the main reason for headaches.

ANC uses a mechanism whereby the headphones assess the frequency of the noise that is surrounding you. Once it has a full analysis it then produces sound waves that are of the same frequency as that of the noise to cancel it out. Thus providing you with the experience of noise cancellation.

The two sets of sound waves cancel each other out. This is because when sound waves that are so polar opposite to each other collide they counteract one another reducing their overall effect. This process in scientific terms is called destructive interference.

Even though you might not hear destructive interference happening in this way precisely. Your brain still has to work extremely hard as it tries to process these variations and frequencies. All of which is to say that the brain receives a lot of stress and prolonged exposure can cause headaches for many people.

Related: 7 Differences Between a Headphone Amp and a DAC

Noise-Cancelling Headphones Have Tight Bands

Another one of the reasons that we discussed, that could be a potential cause for your headaches, is that most noise-canceling headphones have very tight headbands. Good headbands are important because they are meant to wrap around your head and make sure that the headphones do not fall off easily.

However, many noise-canceling headphones have a glaring issue with them. All noise canceling headphones consist of two earpieces on either side, and each of them is connected with the plastic head-band, which joins the earpieces together.

Many noise-canceling headphones in an attempt to have a design that minimizes the potential for noise to trickle into your earpieces tries to make their bands as tight as possible. And if you’re going to be using your headphones for an extended period, then the band exerts an immense amount of pressure on and around your head.

There are many nerves in and around the head such as the cutaneous nerves and even the temporal bones. If these are directly targeted by tight bands then there is a chance that you might get a compression headache as a result.

Often the pain that is initiated by such pressure around the head can begin to spread to other areas as well. This is why it can be potentially very harmful if you wear noise-canceling headphones for a long period. Pain especially can extend down to the neck and the jaw.

If you wear glasses then the compression headaches can become even worse because that might also increase the amount of pressure placed on your skull and brain. If you think you’re getting headaches because your headphone band is too tight, try loosening the band to relieve the pressure.

High Volume Causes Headaches

Perhaps the best way to experience your favorite bits of media or music is by using noise-canceling headphones. This is because the device cuts out external noise and allows you to play your audio at the highest possible level, with the most amount of clarity. Letting you experience the entirety of the music.

However, if you’re listening to music in this manner then it can potentially be the cause of your headaches. This is because there exist certain blood vessels within your head that often widen while you listen to loud sounds.

The dilation of blood vessels in this fashion causes pressure to build up in and around the skull, most notably the trigeminal sensory nerve fibers. These are sensitive nerve fibers and can have pressure quite easily applied to them. They end up releasing proteins that cause headaches when this happens.

So if you’re listening to a lot of loud music, especially whilst using noise-canceling headphones, which accentuates the volume by removing external noise. Then there exists a very high likelihood that your noise-canceling headphones might trigger a migraine.

We recommend you lower the volume when you’re using noise-canceling headphones, especially if you want to preserve yourself from headaches and even possible earaches in certain cases. It’s probably even more practical to permanently lower the volume of all your audio output devices because prolonged and consistent exposure to high volumes can cause hearing loss.

Also Read: Are Headphone Stands Necessary? The Facts Explained

What Happens If You Wear Noise-Cancelling Headphones All Day?

Noise-canceling headphones are wonderful if you wish to improve your concentration. So it’s only natural that a lot of people wish to wear their noise-canceling headphones, all day if they can, to improve their concentration on things such as their work, studies, or anything else they want to do.

Blocking out distracting noises in today’s work culture has become essential, especially with how many things exist that are vying for your attention and can get you wasting time. But this raises the obvious question of what happens if you wear noise-canceling headphones all day. Well, we might have the answer.

This directly ties with the issue of headaches caused by noise-canceling headphones as well. Because you see there is a high probability that noise-canceling headphones will give you headaches or earaches. They would otherwise not be too bad at all to wear for the entire day if you so had to.

However, it’s obvious that as you use noise-canceling headphones more and more, it slowly deteriorates your ability to resist headaches and earaches. They do save you from noise pollution and distractions, but the cost can be feeling extremely worn out as a result of the headaches that they can cause.

Of course, we have to say that if you’re planning on wearing your noise-canceling headphones during your regular day then several issues might arise as a result. For example, if you’re driving or jogging then there is a very good chance that you won’t notice a high-speed car honking behind you.

There are also some laws in certain states and countries that do not allow the usage of noise-canceling headphones during driving or cycling. You should make sure that your state or country has these rules in place or not. Because they could be the difference between your safety and the safety of others.

So we’ll go out on a limb here and say that it is probably not the best idea to have your noise-canceling headphones on the whole day. And that sparring usage or using it only when you need it the most, like doing work or studying, is the best way to get the most out of your noise-canceling headphones without damaging your head or ears.

Can Noise-Canceling Headphones Cause Tinnitus?

The last question we’ll be answering is in regards to whether noise-canceling headphones have the potential of causing Tinnitus in people. Often people who end up being diagnosed with Tinnitus do so because they wish to fix the constant slew of headaches that they receive as a result.

Perhaps the most consistent and common symptom that a lot of people experience as a result of Tinnitus is the constant buzzing and/or ringing sound that they experience within their ears. This is occasionally paired with either tenderness or pain within the inner ear.

Both of these aspects can be particularly debilitating and can cause serious persistent headaches if they are not treated or prevented in the first place. If you’re regularly using noise-canceling headphones then there is a chance that the high volume and sound waves can cause damage to the tiny, often delicate hairs, of your cochlea.

The cochlea is the inner part of the ear and is the one most easily damaged if there is an excess of sound or disruption of sound waves. Both of which are possible if you’re regularly using noise-canceling headphones at a high volume.

If this is something that you’re experiencing as well then we recommend consulting a doctor as soon as possible. Additionally, lower the volume of your noise-canceling headphones and try to limit their usage to as little as possible. Finally, try to buy headphones that have bands that are not too tight.

Ultimately, yes, noise-canceling headphones do cause headaches for a lot of people. And there is a slew of reasons why they do so, but most importantly it is their high volumes, intense soundwaves, and often tight bands that contribute to what you’re experiencing.

We provide many suggestions throughout this article that you should be wary of when purchasing or using noise-canceling headphones. It’s probably best to take care of yourself, more than anything else. Till next time! Ciao.

Audiophile Haven

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