Man holding hand to ear simulating difficulty hearing

To say that hearing loss is common is somewhat of an understatement. In the US, 48 million people report some level of hearing loss. As a result,, 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 avoid becoming one of those five?

To help you understand how to preserve 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.

How Normal Hearing Works

Hearing loss is the disruption of normal hearing, so a good place to begin is with an understanding of how normal hearing is intended to work.

You can think of normal hearing as consisting of three chief processes:

  1. The physical and mechanical transmission of sound waves. Sound waves are created in the environment and travel 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 arouse the tiny nerve cells of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ of the inner ear.
  2. The electrical conduction from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once activated, converts the vibrations into electrical signals that are sent via the auditory nerve to the brain.
  3. 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 fully physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.

The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Go Wrong

There are three main types of hearing loss, each interfering with some element of the normal hearing process:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. 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 the result of anything that blocks conduction.

Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects inside of the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, perforated eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.

Treatment of conductive hearing loss includes the removal of 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 immediately after a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more serious kinds of conductive hearing loss, this type can be the easiest 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 due to the deterioration to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.

With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain receives weakened 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
  • Abrupt exposure to very loud sounds
  • Long-term subjection to loud sounds

Sensorineural hearing loss is most frequently connected with direct exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by keeping away from those sounds or by shielding your hearing with earplugs.

This form of hearing loss is a little more difficult to treat. There are no current surgical or medical procedures to heal the nerve cells of the inner ear. However, hearing aids and cochlear implants are very effective at taking on the amplification responsibilities of the nerve cells, generating the perception of louder, sharper sound.

The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is simply some combination 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 talk with your doctor or hearing professional as soon as possible. In almost every instance of hearing loss, you’ll get the best results the earlier you deal with the underlying issue.

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