Our ears are incredibly complex and work hard to constantly process sounds. Nearly any noise, loud or soft, near or far, is picked up and interpreted at lightning speed, yet if any section of our ears isn’t working quite right, it can have a huge impact on our hearing ability. While hearing loss can take many forms, it’s essential for this intricate pathway to function correctly.
When a sound reaches your ear, the first step in being able to hear it clearly is when it enters your outer ear. Called the pinna, it acts as a funnel to send sound waves through your ear canal, into your eardrum and through the middle ear. Also known as the tympanic membrane, the eardrum is very flexible and vibrates when it encounters sound waves. Next to the eardrum are three small bones that are grouped together into a mechanism called the ossicles. They work to amplify and move sounds to your inner ear and are often the first place where hearing loss occurs.
The inner ear houses parts of our hearing system that are very delicate and incredibly important. The cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ, contains microscopic hair-like cells that include an array of nerve endings. These cells react to incoming vibrations and move them via the auditory nerve to your brain. The final step in the hearing process occurs when our brain processes the sound you just heard moments ago.
Patients with hearing loss suffer from an issue within one of the above mentioned processes. Our hearing evaluations are designed to diagnose exactly which part of your ear isn’t functioning and thus allows us to create the most appropriate treatment plan for your needs. There are four main types of hearing loss – keep reading to see how they might affect you.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
The most common type of hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss occurs due to a problem with the inner ear or auditory nerve. It presents itself when either the auditory nerve or the hair-like cells in the cochlea have sustained damage or are missing. This results in the inability to send complete nerve signals to the brain.
This kind of hearing loss can be caused by the following:
- Head trauma
- Drugs that are toxic to hearing (ototoxicity)
- Malformation of the inner ear
- Exposure to loud noise
Conductive Hearing Loss
Although rather uncommon and typically temporary, a conductive hearing loss can occur in some patients. It’s caused when an issue in the outer or middle ear blocks sound from the inner ear. Treatment involves the use of medication or surgery while other individuals opt to use hearing aids to improve their hearing ability.
Conductive hearing loss can be caused by:
- Ear infections
- Benign tumors
- Swimmer’s Ear
- Foreign object in the ear
- Fluid in the middle ear from colds
- Absence or malformation of the outer ear, ear canal, or middle ear
- Perforated eardrum
- Impacted cerumen (earwax)
Mixed Hearing Loss
When multiple parts of the ear’s anatomy are damaged, a mixed hearing loss can occur. In most cases, both the middle or outer ear along with the auditory nerve or inner ear have sustained an injury of some type or have encountered one of the conditions listed above. The conductive hearing loss present may be reversible while the sensorineural hearing loss is often permanent.
Auditory Processing Disorders
Rather than a hearing impairment which affects the ability to detect sounds, Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) causes individuals to struggle with their ability to organize, analyze and interpret noises around them. While all parts of the ear are functioning properly, those with APD find that the hurdle they encounter is in their brain. Often caused by a tumor, disease, injury, heredity, or an unknown cause, the auditory processing centers in the brain do not function normally. APD does not always include hearing loss and many times the treatments for this disorder versus a hearing impairment are dramatically different.