To state that hearing loss is widespread is somewhat of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million individuals describe 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 this, how do you prevent becoming one of those five?
To help you understand how to sustain healthier hearing throughout 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 interruption of normal hearing, so an appropriate place to begin is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is supposed to work.
You can picture 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 pond, eventually making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and finally hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are then transmitted to the middle ear bones, which then stimulate 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 via the auditory nerve to the brain.
- The perception of sound within the brain. The brain perceives the electrochemical signal as sound.
What’s fascinating is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, vibrations, electric current, 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 main types of hearing loss, each interfering with some factor 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 inhibits the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is attributed to anything that hinders conduction.
Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects within the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, perforated 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 begin hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more severe 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 interferes with the electrical conduction of sound from the cochlea to the brain. This is due to the 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 main 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
- Abrupt exposure to excessively loud sounds
- Long-term subjection to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is typically associated with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by circumventing those sounds or by protecting your hearing with earplugs.
This type 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 extremely effective at taking over the amplification functions of the nerve cells, generating the perception of louder, more detailed sound.
The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is essentially some combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.
If you have any trouble hearing, or if you have any ear pain or lightheadedness, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor or hearing professional as soon as possible. In nearly every instance of hearing loss, you’ll attain the greatest results the sooner you take care of the underlying problem.