To state that hearing loss is common is somewhat of an understatement. In the US, 48 million individuals describe some extent of hearing loss. Meaning, 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 preserve healthy hearing throughout 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 disturbance of normal hearing, so a good place to begin is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is supposed 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 created in the environment and propel through the air, like ripples in a pond, ultimately making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and finally striking the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are subsequently transferred to the middle ear bones, which then excite 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 transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve.
- 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 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 disrupting some part of the normal hearing process:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mix 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 hinders conduction.
Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects inside 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 instance from impacted earwax, you could begin hearing better immediately after a professional cleaning. With the omission of the more serious forms of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the fastest to treat and can restore normal hearing completely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss disrupts the electrical conduction of sound from the cochlea to the brain. This is triggered 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 diminished electrical signals, limiting the volume and quality of sound.
The chief causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:
- Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
- Regular aging (presbycusis)
- Infections and traumatic injuries
- Meniere’s disease
- Cancerous growths of the inner ear
- Side effects of medication
- Sudden exposure to excessively loud sounds
- Long-term exposure to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is in most cases connected with direct exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by avoiding those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.
This form of hearing loss is a little 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 very effective at taking on the amplification responsibilities of the nerve cells, leading to the perception of louder, crisper sound.
The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is basically some mixture 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 talk with your doctor or hearing professional as soon as possible. In nearly every case of hearing loss, you’ll get the greatest results the earlier you attend to the underlying issue.