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Man holding hand to ear simulating difficulty hearing

To state that hearing loss is common is a bit of an understatement. In the US, 48 million people describe some extent of hearing loss. That 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 that, how do you avoid becoming one of those five?

To help you understand how to conserve healthy hearing all through your life, we’ll take a look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s blog post.

How Normal Hearing Works

Hearing loss is the disturbance of normal hearing, so the best place to start is with an understanding of how normal hearing is supposed to work.

You can think of normal hearing as composed of three chief processes:

  1. The physical and mechanical transmission 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 striking the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are then transferred to the middle ear bones, which then arouse the tiny nerve cells of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ of the inner ear.
  2. The electrical transmission from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once stimulated, converts the vibrations into electrical impulses that are delivered 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 fascinating is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, oscillations, electric current, and chemical reactions. It’s a completely physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.

The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Be Interrupted

There are three primary types of hearing loss, each interfering with some component of the normal hearing process:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. Mixed hearing loss (a combination 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 a consequence of anything that blocks 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 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 example from impacted earwax, you could possibly start hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more severe forms of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the fastest to treat and can bring back normal hearing completely.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

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

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

The chief causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:

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

Sensorineural hearing loss is typically connected with direct exposure to loud sounds, and so can be prevented by avoiding those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.

This form of hearing loss is a bit more difficult to treat. There are no present 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 duties of the nerve cells, producing the perception of louder, clearer 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 difficulties hearing, or if you have any ear discomfort or lightheadedness, it’s best to pay a visit to your doctor or hearing professional right away. In nearly every instance of hearing loss, you’ll attain the best results the sooner you attend to the underlying problem.