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Hearing loss has become one of the most common health concerns that Americans are navigating today. Nearly one in eight people have some degree of hearing loss in one or both ears according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Hearing loss often happens gradually over time so it can be easily overlooked or ignored. This means that there are people suffering from impaired hearing that may not be completely aware that it is happening. It is important to be aware of this growing health concern and proactive about your hearing health!
Hearing loss is the result of damage or injury to any part of the auditory system which is the way we hear. This involves the complete function of the ears, comprised of:
- Outer Ear: is the most visible part of the ear (known as pinna), ear canal, and ear drum
- Middle Ear: the eardrum separates the outer ear from the middle ear which also consists of the ossciles. These are three small bones (among the smallest in the human body).
- Inner Ear: is made up of the cochlea (filled with hair cells and fluid) and nerves
The outer ear absorbs soundwaves from the environment which travel through the ear canal and strike the eardrum. This causes the eardrum and ossciles to vibrate and move the soundwaves further into the ear where it activates the cochlea. The hair cells and fluid in the cochlea vibrate and this helps translate the soundwaves to electric impulses that the auditory nerve sends to the brain to process and make meaning of. If any of these parts are injured or obstructed, this complex process of hearing is disrupted.
Conductive Hearing Loss
There are three types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural, and mixed hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is the result of damage specifically to the inner ear or auditory nerve which restricts (or prevents) the auditory nerve’s ability to send sound to the brain. The second type of hearing loss is conductive which is not as common as sensorineural. Mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive.
Conductive hearing loss occurs when the outer or middle ear is damaged, preventing sound from traveling through the ear canal to the inner ear. This blockage of sound makes it difficult to hear sounds at a regular or quiet level. Conductive hearing loss can be temporary in contrast to sensorineural which is permanent.
Causes: there are several ways that the outer and middle ear can be damaged. This includes:
- Narrowing of the ear canal (known as stenosis)
- Wax buildup in the ear canal
- Ear infections (for example, swimmer’s ear)
- Abnormal bone growths, tumors, protrusions
- Injury to the ear drum which can be caused by ear infections, rapid changes in air pressure
- Damage caused by foreign objects entering the ear
- Fluid in middle ear from colds and/or allergies
Symptoms: conductive hearing loss makes hearing soft sounds difficult because the parts of the ear responsible for amplifying sound are impacted. Also, because the inner ear and nerves are intact, clarity is not an issue (rather amplification). Therefore, often times all it takes to hear much better is increasing the volume. Other symptoms include:
- Turning up the volume on electronic devices (TV,
phone, laptop etc.)
- Preferring one ear over the other
- Feeling sense of pressure or pain in one or both ears
- An odd odor coming from the ear canal
- Difficulty hearing soft speech
- Your voice seems to sound different and/or louder
Treatment of conductive hearing loss depends on the specific cause. Many causes of conductive hearing loss are temporary and hearing can be restored through medical treatments or surgery. For example, wax buildup, abnormal growth, and injury caused by objects can be treated and resolved with surgical procedures, wax extraction, and antibiotics. Other causes of conductive hearing loss are difficult to address through surgery, such as a narrowing of the ear or specific kinds of bone protrusions. These causes may be considered more permanent and be treated by hearing aids.