How To Prevent Headphones From Giving You Headaches

by Alex.   Last Updated On June 6th, 2022.
SoundGearLab is supported by our readers. We may earn a commission for purchases made after clicking on links on this page. Read our affiliate disclosure for more information.

Headphones are not without their flaws. Many users complain about having headaches while wearing headphones, and because of this, they are switching over to earbuds and speakers. (since the head pain is so bad)

So, does this have to happen to you? Will you have to sacrifice high-fidelity sound quality in favor of a headache-free audio experience?

Thankfully no. You can avoid headphone headaches right away if you start loosening up the headband and stop listening to music at loud volumes, doing these two things, will relieve some pressure on your head and let your brain heave a sigh of relief.

That said, there’s more you can do on how to prevent headphones from giving you headaches, both literally and figuratively. So stick with me as we go along and discuss related topics such as:

  • How to prevent headphones from giving you headaches?
  • What to look for when picking out a new pair of comfortable headphones?
  • Why do you get headaches from wearing headphones?

Let’s get to it.

Table of Contents
+

How to Prevent Headphones from giving you Headaches?

If there’s one takeaway from this guide: you should never be wearing tight headphones, especially one that feels like you’ve got a couple of bricks pressing into the sides of your head. Though headphones can’t damage your brain, tight headphones can cause a lot of problems and not just headaches; tight headphones can cause hair loss, skin irritations, and even jaw pain.

Even though some tightness is expected, especially from brand new headphones, you shouldn’t feel an unnatural amount of pain that keeps on hurting even after you’ve taken them off.

Regardless, you won’t have to replace them just yet, because I have some solutions that might help loosen up those stubborn earcups and headbands.

Stretch Out Your Headphones

If the clamping force on your headphones is too tight (even with the adjustable headband loosened up all the way) you can break in your headphones by keeping them stretched out for a couple of days.

  1. First, get a sturdy box or a stack of books that are slightly wider than your head.
  2. After that, carefully stretch the headphones, and clamp them on the sides of the box (as if the box is wearing headphones).
  3. Keep the headphones stretched like this for a couple of days and check if the headband has loosened up a bit. If it hasn’t, try this again for another couple of days.

Even though this method seems kind of rudimentary, it works on most headphones and you can safely carry it out as long as you don’t overstretch the headband.

Add Extra Padding

Sometimes the cushioning on the underside of the headband or the earcups might be too thin for your head. This can lead to a lot of pressure exerted on the top and sides of the head as the ear cups and headband will dig in and press tightly into your skin.

So if you’ve tried the above method of stretching the headphones out, but still feel like the earcups and headband are too tight, you can try replacing the cushions or adding in extra padding onto the headband or ear pads.

For headbands, you can get replacement parts that are modified to have extra padding or you can add in a headband cover. (Like this one.) Either way, make sure the parts you buy are compatible with the headphones you use.

The same goes for the ear cups, so make sure you get extra cushions or replacement pads that fit each of your headphones ear cups. Also, if the replacement parts have a velour or a leather lining, it will be even better.

Headphones, notepad and pc on wooden table. Music concept

Get Glasses with a Thinner Frame

If you wear glasses while working, gaming, or watching content, you might find that (tight) headphones and glasses do not go well together at all.

For some, the frame of the glasses is already uncomfortable and when you add headphones into the mix, it can get worse. The frame and the ear cups can dig into your skin and leave an impression (not a good one I’m afraid) or even irritate your skin.

So if contact lenses aren’t your thing, and you still want to enjoy premium audiophile headphones, you can try changing out the frame of your glasses to a thinner one.

For more ideas, check out our guide on how to wear headphones with glasses comfortably.

Check Your Ears for Wax Buildup or Infections

Yes, wearing headphones can cause earwax buildup (earbuds: even more so), but just because you stop wearing headphones won’t guarantee that you’ll be safe from earwax buildup or infections. There are a host of other reasons, such as foreign bodies (hearing aids, piercings, insects, etc.), injuries, or even genetic conditions that can cause diseases and medical conditions inside your ears.

Therefore, if you get headaches, sore ears, pain, allergies, or even an itching sensation, it might be time to seek medical attention. Don’t try to clean your ear canal or inner ear by yourself (using cotton swabs/Q-tips) you’ll only make it worse. Get it checked by a doctor, simce they will be able to figure out what’s wrong and provide medication. (Even help clean your ears if possible.)

Clean Your Headphones and Earbuds

I highly suggest making it a habit to clean your headphones and earbuds regularly, at least once a week.

When you are working on the computer or exercising while wearing headphones, (Here are some headphones for working out) it can get hot and humid inside your ears, and this can be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. On top of that, the lack of airflow due to a blocked ear canal will also cause earwax to build up or snag into the speaker grille.

Therefore, it’s always a great idea to clean your earbuds or headphones regularly. For a quick headphone “cleanse”, you can wipe down the inside of each ear cup, and the underside of the headband using some alcohol wipes. Don’t try to use water or soap, because water could get inside the drivers and cause liquid damage.

For earbuds, you can take out each ear tip, wipe them down with alcohol wipes, and brush off any gunk caught on the grilles using an old toothbrush.

Avoid Listening to Loud Music

Listening to loud music is always a bad idea. It can be another reason why you might be getting those headaches.

When people are listening to music at loud volumes, specifically at a volume level that’s more than 85 dB (either via speakers or headphones). It can put too much pressure on the eardrums and cells, causing headaches, nausea, anxiety, hearing loss, and many other problems.

So if you ever find yourself amping up the volume on your headphones, smartphone or speakers, make sure you don’t go too far with the volume slider. I highly recommend sticking to the well-known 60/60 rule, where you would listen to music at a 60% volume level for 60 minutes.

Take Regular Breaks

Speaking of the 60/60 rule, one thing that many headphone users (myself included) forget to do is to limit their headphone listening time.

After we break in our headphones and finally get comfortable wearing them for long periods of time, we’re going to have trouble reminding ourselves to get them off. I have found myself wearing my first headphones (a pair of JBL Tune 750BTNCs) for three or four hours at a time, even when I’m not listening to music.

Also, I’m not the worst headphone user there is; I know friends who wear headphones for almost 6-8 hours continuously as they are gaming or working on the computer, and the only time they take them out is when they have to go to sleep.

Other than exerting pressure on your head, wearing headphones (closed-backs, open-backs, and even earbuds) can cause earwax buildup, infections, and headaches. So make sure to set up a timer and let your ears air out for five minutes every hour. Your ears will thank you.

Switch to Earbuds

Earbuds have a lot of advantages over headphones, and they are the most viable option for casual listeners. So if you’ve tried out several headphones, and none of them are headache-free, I recommend switching over to earbuds.

Now mind you, this isn’t a downgrade at all, we are just shifting our priorities to comfort and safety. Besides, most high-end earbuds still offer great sound quality. On top of that, they have very impressive background noise cancelation/isolation, and battery life that could last the entire day. (As long as you take regular breaks and let the earbuds recharge in-between.)

Change the Ear Tips

Although this is specific to earbud users, it’s good advice because most of us will use earbuds, at some point, without even considering the different tip sizes and materials.

Most earbud users suffer through oversized/undersized ear tips without ever thinking of changing them up. Even when I bought my first pair of TWS earbuds, I really didn’t think of switching it up with the ear tips or even making the transition to memory foam tips. (Which by the way are way better than the stock ear tips.)

So if you are using earbuds regularly, I highly recommend changing an ear tip on one of the earbuds and noting the differences. Even if you were comfortable before, you might get an even better fit with better noise isolation. (Perfect for working in a noisy environment.)

Switch To Over-Ear Headphones

Maybe your head is just not built to accommodate on-ear headphones. If that’s the case, you can try getting a new pair of over-ear (circumaural) headphones.

These types of headphones might be a bit bulky and difficult to carry around, but they are more comfortable and don’t press into your ears like the on-ears. Besides, they offer better noise isolation since the oval-shaped ear cups will cover your entire ears and create a tight, rigid seal.

What to Look For When Picking Out a Comfortable Pair of Headphones

If you tried, over and over again, to make it work with your previous headphones and found out that nothing works, and you still get discomfort and frequent headaches while wearing them, it’s time to go shopping for a new pair of comfortable headphones.

Here are some of the decision factors that can affect headphones, especially when it comes to minimizing headaches.

Weight: If you aren’t keen on audiophile headphones with big drivers and even bigger earpads, a lightweight pair of Bluetooth headphones might be for you. However, the weight alone isn’t the only factor that could determine the overall comfort, and it can only give you a rough idea. If the headphones you are looking for weigh more than 0.75lbs, they might be heavier and uncomfortable to wear.

Clamping Force: Headphones with a higher clamping force will grip your head tighter, and if it’s too tight, can even cause headaches. Although the clamping force is not mentioned outright in most headphone spec sheets, you can find it from tech reviewers. For an average person (with an average head size), a clamping force of 0.7lbs-1lb is a comfortable fit.

Breathability: For maximum comfort during extended periods of use (with regular breaks, of course), you need headphones that have soft breathable cushions and liners. For this purpose, I highly recommend ear cushions/liners made out of velour since they are soft on the skin and are very breathable. However, they do a poor job of isolating background noise. The other alternative is synthetic leather. If you hope to buy headphones with synthetic leather liners (which is almost every low-mid range headphone on the market nowadays), make sure the earpads come with high-quality, protein leather. (The ones that are soft and textured.) The cheap plasticky liners flake off after a couple of weeks of use and they have a weird feeling to them.

Upset man with headache and headphones

Why Do You Get a Headache When Wearing Headphones?

Here are some of the common explanations of why you can get headaches from wearing headphones. Unfortunately, these aren’t medically recognized as being related to headphone use, but I believe they are connected, one way or another. I know this because I’m something of an audiophile myself.

Sensory Overload

Sensory overload can happen when your brain gets overwhelmed with too much information. When this happens, the brain enters a fight, flight, or freeze mode where you start feeling restless, panicky, or paranoid. Even though the symptoms (and their intensities) are different for everyone, sensory overload can manifest in headphone users when listening to loud music, triggering anxiety or headaches in the process.

External Compression Headaches

When you wear helmets, goggles, headphones, or other headwear too tightly, the nerves under your skin can get pinched or stressed out. These nerves (which usually send signals to your brain) can cause a normal headache or even trigger a migraine when they are under stress for an extended period of time.

Luckily, the headaches will go away as soon as you take off the headphones or restrictive headgear. So you will always be able to tell whenever you get external compression headaches.

Migraines

Although there is no clear indication of what causes migraines, many experts have linked it to genetics and environmental factors.

When exposed to loud noises, especially for a prolonged period of time, the body can induce a migraine. Depending on the person, a migraine can feel like a normal headache, but most of the time, it’s a typical headache dialed to a thousand, with symptoms including throbbing headaches, nausea, and sensitivity to loud sounds and bright lights.

Although there are some treatments available, the best course of action is always, prevention.

Conclusion

Wearing tight headphones can be a real pain in the “head,” and it’s definitely not worth relaxing to high-quality noise-free music when all you’re getting are headaches on top of headaches.

Therefore, make sure your headphones aren’t too tight, and your music is not too loud; you will be able to enjoy music and actually relax for once.