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Hearing loss impacts millions of Americans. Nearly 30 million people live with impaired hearing, making this a common health concern. Hearing loss often occurs gradually so changes to hearing can easily be overlooked and remain untreated. This is particularly dangerous because it can worsen one’s hearing and exacerbate other existing health issues. It is important for people to have their hearing assessed to determine if there is any impairment, the degree, and the specific type. Early detection of hearing loss can make a significant difference in treatment and transitioning to better hearing health!
The treatment and curability of hearing loss depends on the type and degree. Typically, hearing loss is not curable but can be effectively treated. There are three types of hearing loss: sensorineural, conductive, and mixed hearing loss.
How Hearing Works
Hearing involves a complex process that requires the complete function of the ears which can be divided into three parts:
- Outer Ear: consists of the most visible part of the ear as well as the ear canal.
- Middle Ear: the ear drum separates the outer ear from the middle ear which also includes three connected bones (among the smallest in the human body) known as the ossicles and the eustachian tube.
- Inner Ear: is made up of the cochlea which is filled with thousands of hair cells and fluid in addition to three canals that help with maintaining balance.
The outer ear absorbs as much sound as possible from the environment and these soundwaves travel through the ear canal. Landing on the ear drum, the soundwaves produce vibrations that reach the ossicles which amplify and push the sound further into the ear. This causes the hair cells and fluid to move in the cochlea which helps translate these soundwaves to electric signals that the auditory nerve sends to the brain to process.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
The most common type of hearing impairment that people experience is sensorineural hearing loss. This occurs when there is damage to the hair cells and/or the nerve pathways between the inner ear and the brain.
- Causes: there are various factors that contribute to sensorineural hearing loss including: the aging process, environmental exposure to loud noise, various medical conditions (diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke), viral infections, and tumors.
- Impact: damage to the inner ear causes sounds and speech to be muffled and unclear, hearing soft sounds becomes difficult, hearing distinct words is challenging, and a ringing noise in one or both ears (known as tinnitus) is common.
- Treatment: this type of hearing loss is permanent. Damage to the hair cells in the inner ear is irreversible. We are born with all of the hair cells (thousands in each ear) that we will ever have, these cells do not regenerate. Sensorineural hearing loss is typically treated with hearing aids.
90% of people who experience hearing loss suffer from sensorineural which is not curable.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss is caused by damage or injury of the outer or middle ear. This type of obstruction blocks sound from travelling through the ear canal to the inner ear.
- Causes: common causes of include wax build up, ear infections that create excessive fluid or pus, damage of the ossicles (three tiny bones located in the middle ear), injury caused by foreign objects entering the ear, abnormal bone growths, and tumors.
- Impact: because sound is restricted or blocked from moving through the middle ear, the intensity of soundwaves is decreased. Though the inner ear is still functioning properly, the soundwaves arrive with less energy, impacting one’s ability to perceive sound. In other words, the ear’s ability to amplify sound is reduced.
- Treatment: several causes of conductive hearing loss can often be treated by surgical procedures or medical treatments. Wax buildup can be extracted, medications can cure eczema or any inflammation, abnormal bone growths and tumors can be surgically removed etc. This means that this type of hearing loss is often temporary.
Mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive. This means that there is damage to any part of the ear (outer, middle, inner).
The most common way hearing loss is treated is through the use of hearing aids. Hearing aids are small electronic devices that help absorb, amplify, and process sound. Similar to other electronics, hearing aids have experienced significant innovation over recent years. There is a vast range of options available that include diverse technologies and features that can be customized to meet specific hearing needs.