Man holding hand to ear simulating difficulty hearing

To express that hearing loss is common is somewhat of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million individuals describe some measure 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 can you avoid becoming one of those five?

To help you understand how to preserve 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.

How Normal Hearing Works

Hearing loss is the interruption of normal hearing, so a good place to start is with an understanding of how normal hearing is supposed to work.

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

  1. The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are created in the environment and propel through the air, like ripples in a lake, eventually making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and finally hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are subsequently transferred to the middle ear bones, which then stimulate 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 activated, translates 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, vibrations, electricity, and chemical reactions. It’s a wholly 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 feature 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 closer 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 attributed to anything that blocks 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 getting rid of 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 start hearing better immediately after a professional cleaning. With the exception of the more serious 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 impedes the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear to the brain. This results from deterioration 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 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 very loud sounds
  • Long-term subjection to loud sounds

Sensorineural hearing loss is frequently connected with direct exposure to loud sounds, and so can be prevented by staying away from those sounds or by defending 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 very effective at taking over the amplification tasks of the nerve cells, resulting in the perception of louder, sharper sound.

The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is essentially some mixture 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 a good idea to pay a visit to your physician or hearing professional right away. In virtually every instance of hearing loss, you’ll attain the best results the sooner you attend to the underlying problem.

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