Ask a Best Doc: Is It Dangerous to Run With Headphones?

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Young woman taking run --- Image by © Dirk Lindner/Corbis
Photo: Dirk Lindner/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Honestly, how frequently are runners who wear earphones outside showing up in ERs? It seems so dangerous. I’ve read the old “just make sure you can still hear outside noises” advice, regarding getting earphones or headphones you can wear while running in an urban area, but that sounds like well-intended hooey. What are doctors seeing?

There’s no question about it: It’s a dangerous practice and doctors have definitely seen an increase in the number of runners who had accidents while wearing headphones, says Dr. William N. Levine, of  New York Presbyterian-Columbia Medical Center’s orthopedic department.

A recent study found that injuries among pedestrians wearing headphones tripled between 2004 and 2011, with most accidents occurring in urban areas. This rise correlates with what I’ve seen in patients — I’ve personally noticed a definite increase over the last five years. People in emergency medicine have mentioned that they’ve noticed it, too. Running or walking with headphones is an obvious health risk that’s well known among doctors, just like using cell phones in cars. 

As an orthopedic surgeon, I’ve seen many runners who have had their lives completely altered because they were running while wearing headphones. When the accidents aren’t fatal, there can be devastating injuries that leave permanent functional limitations. These horrific injuries can really change their lives.

Given the known danger, I know some politicians are trying to ban headphone use among pedestrians in New York. I’m not sure how you’d really enforce that law, but speaking strictly as a doctor, I can see the logic in trying to minimize this risk in any way possible. In New York City, stepping off the curb can be dangerous in ideal circumstances. When you add something that both distracts you and blunts one of your senses, it’s obviously going to increase that danger significantly.

Most people intuitively know this, so there’s a degree of self-blame among patients. Runners aren’t always forthcoming about the circumstances of an accident; it's only upon further investigation that you find out they were wearing headphones. This makes it harder to get accurate data on how many accidents involve pedestrians wearing headphones — but again, from the point of view of the medical community, there’s no question that it’s causing far too many of them. 

My advice? Don’t do it. I don’t do it. My wife’s a runner, and she doesn’t run outside with headphones. Don’t bike with headphones, either — we see a lot of injuries from that, too. If you really need music to help you get an endorphin high, or you want to listen to an audiobook or podcast while you run, do it on a treadmill. I’d save headphones for indoor workouts.

If you won’t do that, at least consider keeping one ear free while you run. Look at it this way: If you're doing something that's arguably for your health, but also significantly increasing your risk of getting killed or seriously injured, at some point your brain’s risk-benefit-analysis alarm should go off and tell you “this isn’t a good idea.” If you’re running with headphones in a crowded urban area with a lot of cross-traffic, like New York, that alarm should be sounding.

Got a health question? Send it to askadoctor@nymag.com and we’ll find a doctor to answer it.