Your chances of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regretfully very high, even more so as you get older. In the United States, 48 million people report some amount of hearing loss, including almost two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s critical to understand hearing loss, so that you can detect the symptoms and take protective actions to reduce injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to zero in on the most widespread form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three types of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mix of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is the result of some kind of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and genetic malformations of the ear.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This form of hearing loss is the most common and accounts for about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It results from damage to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter the external ear, hit the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, because of destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is provided to the brain for processing is diminished.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and normally has an effect on speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, unlike conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent and can’t be corrected with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has a variety of potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head injuries
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The final two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most frequent causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly great news as it means that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t prevent aging, of course, but you can minimize the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).
To fully grasp the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms progress so slowly that it can be virtually impossible to perceive.
A small measure of hearing loss every year will not be very recognizable to you, but after several years it will be very apparent to your family and friends. So even though you might think everyone is mumbling, it could very well be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are a few of the symptoms to watch for:
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to excessive levels
- Continually asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Feeling excessively exhausted at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you might have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to book a hearing exam. Hearing tests are quick and painless, and the earlier you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to retain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is great news since it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the US could be avoided by implementing some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with extended exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. That means at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could damage your hearing.
Here are some tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Employ the 60/60 rule – when listening to a portable music player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Also consider purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at live shows – rock concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the ceiling of safe volume (you could injure your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears at your workplace – if you work in a loud profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – Several household and recreational activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during extended exposure.
If you currently have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can significantly improve your life. Hearing aids can enhance your conversations and relationships and can protect against any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you suspect you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and simple hearing test today!