Your odds of acquiring hearing loss at some time in your life are unfortunately very high, even more so as you age. In the US, 48 million people report some level of hearing loss, including almost two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s vital to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the signs and symptoms and take preventative actions to prevent injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to concentrate on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three forms of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and results from some type of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and hereditary malformations of the ear.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This category of hearing loss is the most common and accounts for about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is triggered by injury to the hair cells (the nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter the outer ear, strike the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, because of destruction to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is transferred to the brain for processing is diminished.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and normally has an effect on speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is typically permanent and cannot be corrected with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has several potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Exposure to loud noise
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The final two, exposure to loud noise and aging, constitute the most frequent causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually good news as it suggests that most cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t prevent aging, of course, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).
To understand the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms progress so slowly and gradually that it can be virtually impossible to notice.
A slight measure of hearing loss every year will not be very detectable to you, but after several years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So even though you may believe that everybody is mumbling, it could very well be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are a few of the symptoms to look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Difficulty following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to excessive levels
- Continuously asking others to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Feeling excessively exhausted at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you might have hearing loss, it’s best to arrange for a hearing exam. Hearing tests are quick and painless, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is great news since it is without question the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the US could be averted by adopting some simple protective measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with prolonged exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. As a result, at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could damage your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can reduce the risk of hearing loss:
- Employ the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Additionally, consider purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at live shows – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the ceiling of safe volume (you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears at the workplace – if you work in a loud profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – Several household and recreational activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.
If you already have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can significantly improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can protect against any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you suspect that you might have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!