Gaming may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the main causes of hearing loss, but if you commonly use a DS or PSP or if you’re one of the millions of people using your mobile device for gaming on the go, chances are good that you’re frequently using headphones or earbuds while playing. If that’s the case, you could be putting yourself at risk. We talked to two experts in the field of audiology to get some background on how to handle your ears with care while gaming.

Where do hearing problems come from?

The first step to taking care of your ears is understanding how they work. Noise travels through your ear, hitting your ear drum, which causes vibrations in the cochlea. Within the cochlea, hair cells are stimulated by the vibrations, sending signals for your brain to interpret. The video below from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) provides an animation showing just how this process works.

When you listen to loud noises over a long period of time, it wears down the hair cells in the cochlea until they’re no longer usable. “It’s sort of like walking over grass,” explains ASHA associate director Anne Oyler. “If you do it over and over again, eventually you wear a path through it. Fortunately, with grass, sometimes it grows back.” The hair cells in your ears can heal over time, but once they’re worn down completely, the damage is irreversible – “permanent but completely preventable,” as Oyler words it.

So at what point does noise become a danger to your ears? Ackland Jones, doctor of audiology for the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, says the cut-off is 85 decibels. “Anything at or above 85 decibels for a prolonged period of time potentially could cause hearing loss,” he says. The risk goes up as the volume increases. He explains, “If you go up to 100 decibels, you wouldn’t want to have more than 15 minutes of unprotected exposure.”

According to info provided by Industrial Noise Control, power lawn mowers and motorcycles fall into the 90 decibel range, while a jet takeoff, a tractor, and a jackhammer all rest at around 100 decibels. It should come as no surprise that you don’t want sounds at this level being fed into your ears for an extended period of time.

How do you know when you have a problem?

According to Oyler and Jones, there are multiple sure signs that you’re listening at too high a volume. If, when you take the headphones off, sounds are muffled, you feel like you have cotton in your ears, or you hear a ringing, buzzing, hissing, or roaring sound, it means that the noise has affected your ears negatively and will likely damage them permanently if you keep it up.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that the type of noise coming out of your handheld device doesn’t really affect how dangerous it is. “It can make a difference when you’re talking about real-world sounds and impulse noise [sudden loud noises, such as gun shots or lightning],” Jones says, “but when it’s going through a speaker, there’s a limit on how much the speaker can output anyway.” In other words, whether you’re caught up in the war sounds of a Call of Duty game or listening to the pleasant tunes of New Super Mario Bros., your ears are at the same risk of being damaged.

Jones also stresses that just because you don’t feel pain doesn’t mean you aren’t in danger. “Often people think that they are listening at a safe level if they are not feeling any pain,” he says. “Sound does not have to be uncomfortable to be damaging.”

How do you prevent hearing loss?

One of the biggest challenges to safe headphones use is that there is no perfect, easy rule for determining if you’re at or above the 85 decibel limit. “Unless I put a probe tube down their ear, I couldn’t say if someone is listening at 90 or at 75 db,” laments Oyler. “There’s no way of me knowing.”

Given that problem, Oyler has a simple solution: “Only turn it up as loud as it needs to be for you to hear it.” It may sound like common sense, but whether you’re listening to a song you really love or getting drawn into an immersive portable game, it’s easy to nudge the volume up a few more notches without even thinking about it. Avoiding this habit could save your ears in the long run, though.

If you need a more specific guideline, Oyler suggests no more than 60% volume on whatever device you’re using. As mentioned previously, though, it’s also a matter of how long you’re listening. According to Oyler: “Limit it to no more than an hour, and then take a 15 or 20-minute break.”

Jones provides another rule of figuring out if you need to turn the volume down: “If you’re listening to your headphones and someone has to shout at you at arm’s length for you to understand them, then you’re probably listening too loud.”

A couple of more direct options exist for people who still aren’t sure. A few companies have started manufacturing volume-limiting headphones, such as the Ultimate Ears Loud Enough earbuds, though most of them are targeted toward children. If you’re using an iPhone, iPod Touch, or any other iOS device, you can easily set a volume limit using this handy guide.

In the end, Oyler breaks it down in a simple way: “Don’t be a loudness junkie.” Your ears will thank you for following that advice.

Thanks for following along with Game Informer’s Health Week. Here are our other Health Week features from earlier in the week:

Keep Your Eyes Open: Sleep Deprivation And Gaming

In Focus: The Vision Problems Facing Gamers

It's All In The Wrist: Carpal Tunnel And Gaming

Food Fight: Maintaining A Healthy Diet While Gaming