To express that hearing loss is prevalent is somewhat of an understatement. In the US, 48 million individuals describe some degree of hearing loss. Meaning, 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 conserve healthier hearing all through your life, we’ll take a look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s posting.
How Healthy Hearing Works
Hearing loss is the disruption of normal hearing, so the best place to start is with an understanding of how normal hearing is intended to work.
You can picture normal hearing as comprised of three principal processes:
- The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are created in the environment and travel through the air, like ripples in a pond, ultimately making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and ultimately striking the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are then transmitted to the middle ear bones, which then trigger 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 signals 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 Go Wrong
There are three primary types of hearing loss, each interfering with some feature 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 interferes with the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is brought on by anything that hinders conduction.
Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects within 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 example from impacted earwax, you could start hearing better instantly after a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more serious types of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the simplest to treat and can restore normal hearing entirely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss impedes 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 weak electrical signals, limiting the volume and quality of sound.
The primary causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:
- Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
- Typical 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 frequently associated 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 difficult 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 duties of the nerve cells, producing the perception of louder, sharper sound.
The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is essentially some mixture of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.
If you have any trouble hearing, or if you have any ear discomfort or lightheadedness, it’s a good idea to consult your physician or hearing professional as soon as possible. In virtually every instance of hearing loss, you’ll attain the greatest results the earlier you treat the underlying problem.