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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 United States, 48 million individuals report some degree of hearing loss. Which means, 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 avoid becoming one of those five?

To help you understand how to preserve healthy 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 the best place to start is with an understanding of how normal hearing is supposed to work.

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

  1. The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are created in the environment and move 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 then transferred to the middle ear bones, which then trigger 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 stimulated, converts 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, vibrations, electricity, and chemical reactions. It’s a completely physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.

The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Be Disrupted

There are three primary types of hearing loss, each disrupting some element 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 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 brought on by anything that hinders 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 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 instance from impacted earwax, you could begin hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more severe kinds of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the easiest to treat and can bring back normal hearing completely.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss interferes with the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear to the brain. This results from injury 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 accidents
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Cancerous growths of the inner ear
  • Side effects of medication
  • Sudden exposure to very loud sounds
  • Long-term exposure to loud sounds

Sensorineural hearing loss is most commonly associated with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by staying clear of those sounds or by protecting your hearing with earplugs.

This form of hearing loss is a little more complicated to treat. There are no current 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, leading to the perception of louder, clearer sound.

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

If you have any difficulties hearing, or if you have any ear pain or dizziness, it’s best to pay a visit to your physician or hearing professional right away. In nearly every case of hearing loss, you’ll get the best results the sooner you treat the underlying issue.