To say that hearing loss is prevalent is a bit of an understatement. In the US, 48 million people report some level 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 that, how do you prevent becoming one of those five?
To help you understand how to maintain healthier hearing throughout 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 interruption of normal hearing, so a good place to start is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is intended to work.
You can think of normal hearing as composed of three primary processes:
- The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are produced in the environment and travel through the air, like ripples in a lake, 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.
- The electrical transmission from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once stimulated, translates the vibrations into electrical signals that are delivered 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 Go Wrong
There are three primary types of hearing loss, each disrupting some component of the normal hearing process:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mix of conductive and sensorineural)
Let’s take a 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 inside the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, perforated eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.
Treatment of conductive hearing loss includes extracting 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 possibly start hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the omission of the more severe types of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the fastest to treat and can restore normal hearing entirely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss interferes with the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear 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 receives weaker electrical signals, reducing the volume and clarity 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 exceedingly loud sounds
- Long-term subjection to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is in most cases connected with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be prevented by staying away from those sounds or by defending your hearing with earplugs.
This form of hearing loss is a little more difficult to treat. There are no existing 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 duties of the nerve cells, resulting in 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 trouble hearing, or if you have any ear discomfort or lightheadedness, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or hearing professional as soon as possible. In almost every instance of hearing loss, you’ll get the greatest results the sooner you take care of the underlying issue.