To state that hearing loss is prevalent is somewhat of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million individuals report 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 that, how do you prevent becoming one of those five?
To help you understand how to maintain healthier hearing all through your life, we’ll take a closer look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s blog post.
How Healthy Hearing Works
Hearing loss is the disturbance of normal hearing, so an appropriate place to start is with an understanding of how normal hearing is intended to work.
You can picture normal hearing as composed of three main processes:
- The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are produced in the environment and propel through the air, like ripples in a pond, eventually making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and finally striking the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are then transmitted 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 conduction from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once activated, converts 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 interesting is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, oscillations, 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 disrupting some part of the normal hearing process:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mixture 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 impedes the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is due to anything that obstructs 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 consists of removing the obstruction, treating the infection, or surgical correction of the malformation of the outer ear, the eardrum, or the middle ear bones.
If you have conductive hearing loss, for instance from impacted earwax, you could possibly begin hearing better immediately after a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more severe kinds of conductive hearing loss, this type can be the fastest to treat and can restore normal hearing entirely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss inhibits the electrical conduction of sound from the cochlea to the brain. This is triggered by deterioration 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 quality of sound.
The principal causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:
- Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
- Regular aging (presbycusis)
- Infections and traumatic accidents
- Meniere’s disease
- Cancerous growths of the inner ear
- Side effects of medication
- Sudden exposure to excessively loud sounds
- Long-term subjection to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is most frequently associated with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by staying away from those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.
This type of hearing loss is a bit more complicated to treat. There are no existing surgical or medical procedures to repair the nerve cells of the inner ear. However, hearing aids and cochlear implants are extremely effective at taking on the amplification tasks of the nerve cells, producing the perception of louder, crisper 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 difficulties hearing, or if you have any ear discomfort or lightheadedness, it’s best to contact 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 address the underlying problem.