To express that hearing loss is prevalent is a bit of an understatement. In the US, 48 million individuals report some amount of hearing loss. This means, on average, for every five people you encounter, one will have hearing loss. And at the age of 65, it’s one out of three.
With odds like this, how do you prevent becoming one of those five?
To help you understand how to conserve healthy hearing all through your life, we’ll take a closer look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s posting.
How Healthy Hearing Works
Hearing loss is the disturbance of normal hearing, so a good place to get started is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is intended to work.
You can picture normal hearing as consisting of three chief processes:
- The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are created in the environment and move through the air, like ripples in a lake, eventually making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and ultimately striking the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are subsequently transmitted to the middle ear bones, which then arouse the tiny nerve cells of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ of the inner ear.
- The electrical conduction from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once stimulated, translates the vibrations into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain via the auditory nerve.
- The perception of sound in the brain. The brain perceives the electrochemical signal as sound.
What’s fascinating is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, oscillations, electric current, and chemical reactions. It’s an entirely physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.
The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Be Interrupted
There are three principal types of hearing loss, each interfering with some aspect of the normal hearing process:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural)
Let’s take a look at the first two, including the causes and treatment of each.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss inhibits the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is the result of anything that obstructs conduction.
Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects within the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, perforated eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.
Treatment of conductive hearing loss includes removing the obstruction, dealing with the infection, or surgical correction of the malformation of the outer ear, the eardrum, or the middle ear bones.
If you suffer from conductive hearing loss, for example from impacted earwax, you could possibly start hearing better immediately following a professional cleaning. With the exception of the more serious types of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the fastest to treat and can bring back normal hearing completely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss interferes with the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear to the brain. This is caused by damage to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.
With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain is provided with compromised electrical signals, limiting the volume and clarity of sound.
The main causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:
- Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
- Regular aging (presbycusis)
- Infections and traumatic accidents
- Meniere’s disease
- Cancerous growths of the inner ear
- Side effects of medication
- Abrupt exposure to excessively loud sounds
- Long-term exposure to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is typically associated with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by avoiding those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.
This type of hearing loss is a bit more challenging to treat. There are no current surgical or medical procedures to repair the nerve cells of the inner ear. However, hearing aids and cochlear implants are extremely effective at taking over the amplification assignments of the nerve cells, producing the perception of louder, more detailed sound.
The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is essentially some combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.
If you have any difficulties hearing, or if you have any ear pain or lightheadedness, it’s best to talk to your physician or hearing professional as soon as possible. In almost every case of hearing loss, you’ll get the best results the sooner you attend to the underlying issue.