To say that hearing loss is common is somewhat of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million individuals report some degree of hearing loss. This means, on average, for every five people you meet, 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 sustain healthier hearing all through your life, we’ll take a look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s blog.
How Healthy Hearing Works
Hearing loss is the disruption of normal hearing, so an appropriate place to start off is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is intended to work.
You can think of normal hearing as composed of three principal 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 finally hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are subsequently transmitted to the middle ear bones, which then activate 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 impulses that are sent via the auditory nerve to the brain.
- The perception of sound within 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, vibrations, electric current, and chemical reactions. It’s a completely 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 disrupting some element of the normal hearing process:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mixture of conductive and sensorineural)
Let’s take a closer 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 due to anything that obstructs 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 extracting the obstruction, treating 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 start hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the omission of the more severe forms of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the simplest to treat and can bring back normal hearing completely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss inhibits the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear to the brain. This is due to the deterioration to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.
With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain is provided with weakened electrical signals, limiting the volume and clarity of sound.
The main causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:
- Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
- Normal aging (presbycusis)
- Infections and traumatic accidents
- Meniere’s disease
- Cancerous growths of the inner ear
- Side effects of medication
- Sudden exposure to excessively loud sounds
- Long-term subjection to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is most often connected with direct exposure to loud sounds, and so can be prevented by avoiding those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.
This type of hearing loss is a little more challenging to treat. There are no present 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 functions of the nerve cells, bringing about the perception of louder, sharper 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 struggle hearing, or if you have any ear pain or lightheadedness, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor or hearing professional as soon as possible. In almost every case of hearing loss, you’ll get the best results the sooner you take care of the underlying issue.