Your chances of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are unfortunately very high, even more so as you age. In the United States, 48 million people report some degree of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can detect the symptoms and take preventative measures to reduce injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to focus on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
Generally speaking, there are three types of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is triggered by some kind of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Frequent causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, and genetic malformations of the ear.
This article will focus on sensorineural hearing loss as it is by far the most common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This form of hearing loss is the most prevalent and makes up about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It results from injury to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves running from the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter the outer ear, hit the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, on account of destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is conveyed to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and usually impacts speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Also, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is typically permanent and can’t be corrected with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has several potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head injuries
- Benign tumors
- Exposure to loud noise
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The final two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, constitute the most widespread causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news as it shows that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, obviously, but you can regulate the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully grasp the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually comes about very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms progress so slowly that it can be nearly impossible to detect.
A slight amount of hearing loss each year will not be very recognizable to you, but after a number of years it will be very apparent to your friends and family. So while you may think everyone is mumbling, it may be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Trouble following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to excessive levels
- Constantly asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Becoming excessively exhausted at the end of the day
If you notice any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you may have hearing loss, it’s best to schedule a hearing exam. Hearing tests are fast and painless, and the sooner you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is good news since it is by far the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the United States could be eliminated by adopting some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially affect your hearing with long-term exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. Which means at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could harm your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can prevent hearing loss:
- Use the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Additionally, think about buying noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Shield your ears at concerts – rock concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the threshold of safe volume (you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears on the job – if you work in a high-volume profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a number of household and leisure activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during extended exposure.
If you currently have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can dramatically improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can protect against any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you might have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!