To say that hearing loss is widespread is somewhat of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million people describe some degree of hearing loss. Which 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 escape 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 blog post.
How Normal Hearing Works
Hearing loss is the interruption of normal hearing, so an appropriate place to begin is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is intended to work.
You can picture normal hearing as composed of three chief processes:
- The physical and mechanical transmission of sound waves. Sound waves are produced in the environment and move through the air, like ripples in a pond, eventually making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and ultimately hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are subsequently transferred to the middle ear bones, which then stimulate 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 activated, translates the vibrations into electrical signals that are delivered via the auditory nerve to the brain.
- The perception of sound in the brain. The brain perceives the electrochemical signal as sound.
What’s interesting is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, oscillations, electricity, and chemical reactions. It’s a fully physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.
The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Be Interrupted
There are three primary types of hearing loss, each interfering with some element of the normal hearing process:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mix 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 impedes the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is a consequence of anything that blocks conduction.
Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects inside of the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, pierced eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.
Treatment of conductive hearing loss includes getting rid of 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 instance from impacted earwax, you could possibly start hearing better immediately following a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more serious varieties of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the simplest to treat and can bring back normal hearing entirely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss inhibits the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear to the brain. This is the result of injury to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.
With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain is provided with weaker electrical signals, limiting the volume and quality of sound.
The principal causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:
- Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
- Typical aging (presbycusis)
- Infections and traumatic accidents
- Meniere’s disease
- Cancerous growths of the inner ear
- Side effects of medication
- Sudden exposure to exceedingly loud sounds
- Long-term exposure to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is most frequently connected with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be prevented by staying away from those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.
This type of hearing loss is a bit more complicated 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 on the amplification duties of the nerve cells, leading to the perception of louder, more detailed sound.
The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is simply some mixture of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.
If you have any difficulty hearing, or if you have any ear pain or dizziness, it’s best to contact your physician or hearing professional as soon as possible. In almost every case of hearing loss, you’ll attain the greatest results the sooner you address the underlying problem.