How to deal with headaches/tinnitus from Zoom meetings?
May 3, 2020 10:34 AM   Subscribe

After every Zoom call, I have tinnitus and a raging headache for at least an hour afterwards. On multiple hardware platforms I have to have audio turned down to virtually inaudible to avoid this. Phones and other conferencing software don't do this. Since Zoom is part of work and keeping in touch with family, I need to find a way to do this without it causing physical pain.

I'm accessing Zoom via Android or the Windows app on my laptop. I've tried headphones, the laptop's speaker and an external Bluetooth speaker. All of them cause the same effect.

Every utterance on a call causes something like the acoustic reflex: my ears seem to flinch repeatedly, as if hearing a very loud percussive noise. After a few minutes they start to ring and hurt, and a headache will quite often set in shortly afterwards. It affects my ability to work for the rest of the day. (And it's not just work calls: had a very pleasant international family call with my parents and siblings two hours ago, and my ears are still ringing.)

I'm generally not sensitive to loud noise. At 50, I might just be beginning to experience some age-related hearing loss. I have had some eardrum damage in the past, but all it did was cut my ability to hear high notes. Going for an ear assessment right now isn't an option, understandably.
posted by scruss to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Headache might be a stress-based outcome to your reaction to the zoomed utterances. If it is, then the remedy is probably behavioural or adaptive: try not to hate it so much, and the stress is reduced (similiar to a popular treatment for tinnitis).

I am familiar with the induced or aggravated tinnitis. Look for sound settings on your windows machine to compress the dynamic range of the audio. It might be called loudness equalization. It might help with the acoustic reflex problem.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:57 AM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

To make a suggestion in the other direction, would it be helpful to add in a small amount of background music or other ambient sound so that the percussive noise wouldn't be so stark as compared to an otherwise silent space?
posted by past unusual at 11:01 AM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Have you tried wearing earplugs?
posted by bq at 11:13 AM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Have you tried calling in to the Zoom meeting on your phone, so that you only use the computer for the video, not the audio?
posted by mskyle at 11:16 AM on May 3, 2020 [13 favorites]

Phones and other conferencing software don't do this.

That seems like an important distinction - could Zoom be using a compression/decompression algorithm that particularly sucks for you? Maybe in combination with your hardware?
posted by clew at 12:02 PM on May 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

This may be a bit of a stretch, but there could possibly be noise that's a side-effect of the compression/decompression clew mentions, that's outside your conscious hearing range but is affecting your ears anyway. You could try using graphic EQ software to cut out everything under 100 Hz and over 4000 or 8000 Hz and see if it prevents the after-call symptoms.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:28 PM on May 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

I wonder whether this might be an effect of latency in the zoom calls between what you see on the screen and the sound.

In the case of a relatively nearby lightning flash — say ~100 yards — you'll see a flash and then a small delay and you experience an overwhelming noise.

As I understand it, the military experimented with helmets for gunnery crews which made a sharp noise in the ears of the crew just before the arrival of the sound of a round being fired in order to maximize the protective effect of the acoustic reflex.

And I think you may have learned to associate any short delay (or possibly even any asynchrony) in the arrival of a sound from something you can see with very loud sounds, and this kicks off your acoustic reflex.

Unlearning that might be possible, but I think it would be very difficult.

If you figure out a way to adjust the relative timing of the acoustic and visual channels, I bet your problem would go away.
posted by jamjam at 3:05 PM on May 3, 2020

scruss, I notice that you've previously mentioned an association with wind farms.

Wind generators often if not almost inevitably generate a lot of subsonics, and there is typically a lot of flicker associated with the moving vanes.

And since flicker is a perennial complaint of Zoom users, I think it's quite possible your acoustic reflex has been conditioned by your experience of wind farms to respond to flicker, and that the flicker associated with Zoom is causing it to kick in as well.
posted by jamjam at 3:53 PM on May 3, 2020

If this is a Zoom-specific issue, have you tried adjusting the background noise reduction settings in Settings > Audio > Advanced?
posted by grouse at 6:18 AM on May 4, 2020

Response by poster: grouse, I just found out about the well-hidden "Enable Original Sound" option too. I shall try it and report back.
posted by scruss at 8:57 AM on May 4, 2020

I think the way you phrased the question probably indicates that the answer to this question is "no", but I'll ask just in case:

Are you using different audio hardware (speakers vs headset, different headset, etc) between the calls that give you trouble and the calls that don't?
posted by Juffo-Wup at 12:59 PM on May 8, 2020

Best answer: So - none of the settings in Zoom affect incoming sounds. The system graphic equalizer didn't help, either.

Keeping the volume low, as well as making sure I didn't have too much earwax, has made it bearable. Not great: it still has very tiring audio compared with Teams or POTS
posted by scruss at 12:26 PM on June 2, 2020

I too have developed mild tinnitus since using zoom 90 minutes, twice a week since March (UK covid-19 lock down started). But the tinnitus doesn't appear to be going away. I don't know whether zoom is the cause but I am suspicious.
You have mentioned that you have some age related hearing impairment and so I have. So I think we might both be tempted to have the volume slightly higher than a twenty year old would need to have it to clearly hear all the people speaking.
I am looking at zoom's audio compression and also whether there is any peak limiter kicking in.
But I think we both need to be careful. If you find zoom calls tiring, I would switch to another conferencing service e.g. for the family calls.
posted by jonacaz at 1:41 PM on June 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

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