Man holding hand to ear simulating difficulty hearing

To state that hearing loss is common is somewhat of an understatement. In the US, 48 million individuals describe some level of hearing loss. This means, on average, for every five people you encounter, 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 preserve healthier hearing throughout your life, we’ll take a closer look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s posting.

How Healthy Hearing Works

Hearing loss is the disturbance of normal hearing, so an appropriate place to start is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is intended to work.

You can picture normal hearing as comprised of three principal processes:

  1. 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 ultimately hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are then transferred to the middle ear bones, which then excite the tiny nerve cells of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ of the inner ear.
  2. The electrical conduction from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once activated, translates the vibrations into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve.
  3. 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 a wholly physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.

The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Go Wrong

There are three main types of hearing loss, each disrupting some part of the normal hearing process:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. 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 impedes the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is the result of anything that blocks conduction.

Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects inside the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, pierced eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.

Treatment of conductive hearing loss consists of 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 have 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 varieties of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the easiest to treat and can restore normal hearing completely.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss disrupts the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear to the brain. This is due to the injury to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.

With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain receives weakened electrical signals, reducing the volume and clarity of sound.

The chief causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:

  • Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
  • Regular aging (presbycusis)
  • Infections and traumatic injuries
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Cancerous growths of the inner ear
  • Side effects of medication
  • Sudden exposure to extremely loud sounds
  • Long-term subjection to loud sounds

Sensorineural hearing loss is frequently connected with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be prevented by keeping away from those sounds or by protecting your hearing with earplugs.

This type of hearing loss is a little more complicated to treat. There are no present 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 assignments of the nerve cells, resulting in the perception of louder, sharper sound.

The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is basically some mixture of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.

If you have any difficulties hearing, or if you have any ear pain or lightheadedness, it’s best to talk with your physician or hearing professional as soon as possible. In nearly every case of hearing loss, you’ll get the best results the earlier you treat the underlying problem.

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