Regular clubbers and concertgoers will be familiar with the ringing and temporary deafness that follows a particularly loud night. But while subjecting ourselves to the occasional Metallica gig isn’t likely to cause lasting damage, many of us put our ears at risk on a daily basis.

An explosion in the sales of digital music players over the past few years has left a set of headphones dangling out of almost every pocket. The privacy afforded by these miniature speakers, combined with the portability and massive memory capacity of today’s MP3 players, offers us the ability to listen to what we want, when we want. Gone are the days of bulky shoulder-mounted boomboxes. Instead, we can walk down the street cocooned in a bubble of cheesy 80s pop, sheltered from the judgment of passers-by.

Unfortunately, all bubbles eventually burst, and the ascent of the humble headphone has not come without the inevitable health risks. The World Health Organisation advises headphone users not to listen at a volume of over 85 decibels (dB) – as loud as a two-stroke chainsaw being operated at a distance of ten metres – for more than an hour, and warns that those who do run the risk of damaging their hearing.

Unsurprisingly, the public don’t appear to be following this advice; statistics from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People suggest that a whopping two thirds of users listen to music above this level. But it isn’t merely out of a predilection for the sound of chainsaws that listeners subject their ears to such volumes. The earphones shipped with today’s music players are typically cheap and poorly designed, with little or no noise-cancelling capacity. As a result, users have to crank up the volume in order to drown out ambient noise. Specialist in-ear monitors and headphones that physically cover the ear can reduce this noise, but they tend to be prohibitively expensive.

The ability to strap ten thousand songs to your upper arm has also made the MP3 player an appealing accessory for the fitness-focused. Not only can it provide motivation through repeated plays of “Eye of the Tiger”, but it is also an effective remedy for the incommunicable boredom that sets in after the first hundred yards of a fifteen-mile run. It’s often tempting to turn up the music when exercising, but this in fact when your ears are at their most vulnerable. Blood is diverted from the ears to the limbs and other parts of the body, leaving the cells in the inner ear unprotected and more susceptible to damage from loud noises.

Wearing headphones while you’re out and about also poses an indirect health risk. Having sealed yourself off from the world, you’re less aware of your surrounding environment, and even wrapping yourself in a blanket of Johnny Cash’s dulcet tones won’t protect you from traffic or potential assailants. In June this year an Australian cyclist escaped with minor injuries after being hit by a tram, and in 2008 a Canadian student was killed when a helicopter crashed on top of him as he walked to the post box. Both had been listening to music through headphones and failed to notice the approaching vehicles.

It’s fair to say that headphones have given listeners a remarkable freedom. But unless we start changing our listening habits, we might not be able to enjoy that freedom for much longer. And in the meantime, keep an eye out for helicopters.

For further information on the dangers posed by headphones, consult the following pages: