Our ears have three major parts – the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. The inner ear houses the hearing organ called the cochlea. It is a small snail-like structure within the inner ear. Inside the cochlea, there are over 20 thousand hair cells that communicate with the auditory nerve and send electrical signals to the brain. The brain interprets those signals and assigns meaning to them, so that we can understand what we hear.
With hearing loss, those hair cells in the cochlea are damaged and do not send strong enough signals to the brain. As we age, we typically develop hearing loss in the high-frequencies, causing difficulty hearing women’s and children’s voices, television, and in background noise.
High-frequency hearing loss also causes certain sounds and syllables to become harder to hear, distorting speech. Individuals with hearing loss often say they can hear people talking, but do not understand what they are saying. And eventually, they might start withdrawing from conversations and begin to feel left out. Hearing loss can really impact our quality of life if left untreated.
Are You Concerned You Have Hearing Loss?
- Do you think people around you are mumbling?
- Are you turning up the volume on the television?
- Do you have difficulty hearing on the phone?
- Are you experiencing trouble hearing in crowded places, such as restaurants?
- Are you asking people to repeat themselves often?
- Do you have ringing in your ears, also known as tinnitus?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, please contact us to schedule a hearing consultation.
Leading Factors of Hearing Loss
There is a common misconception that hearing loss is a condition only experienced by older adults. Hearing loss can and does affect the elderly – but it can also strike people of all ages. Here are some of the major factors that lead to hearing loss.
- Aging. By the age of 65, one out of three Americans will experience hearing loss. That number increases to one out of two by the age of 75. Presbycusis, the medical term for age-related hearing loss, occurs gradually as the hair cells in the cochlea degenerate over time. High frequencies are the first to go, meaning an individual might find it more difficult to understand women and children initially. Most people with presbycusis can be helped with hearing aids.
- Excessive noise exposure. Noise-induced hearing loss is the leading cause of hearing loss. Any prolonged exposure to loud noise (anything over 85 decibels is considered dangerous) can damage the hair cells in the inner ears, causing permanent hearing loss. Even experiencing an excessively loud noise, such as a gunshot or explosion, just once can lead to sudden, irreversible hearing loss. The good news is, hearing protection is very effective at preventing this type of hearing loss. Earplugs (especially ones that have been custom molded to the shape of your ears) and earmuffs should be worn during all activities in which loud noise occurs. These include rock concerts, sporting events, construction sites, while riding a motorcycle or snowmobile, etc.
- Injury to the head or ears. Head or ear trauma resulting from an accident can cause damage to the middle ear, leading to permanent hearing loss. Reconstructive surgery may be able to restore hearing in some cases, for instance, a perforated eardrum.
- Acoustic neuroma. A type of benign tumor known as an acoustic neuroma may not be an immediate health concern, but if it grows large enough it can put pressure on the middle ear, disrupting your hearing ability. These tumors can often be removed with surgery.
- Otosclerosis. This disease of the middle ear causes abnormal bone growth that interferes with hearing. It is usually treated successfully through surgery.
- Ear infection. Ear infections are common in children. Sometimes they are too common; chronic infections (known as otitis media) can damage the sensitive structures of your ears. Our neurotology team can treat and manage these chronic infections.
- Earwax. Though earwax is harmless, and actually helps keep your ears clean, too much of a good thing can cause problems. If it becomes impacted, earwax can block the opening to the ear canal and prevent you from hearing normally. Our neurotology team focuses on the removal of the impacted wax cerumen (earwax) management.
- Ménière’s disease. This disease of the inner ear causes a number of problems that affect hearing and balance, including hearing loss, tinnitus, fullness in the ear and vertigo. Episodes can last from minutes to hours. Hearing loss may be temporary and intermittent at first, but can fluctuate or progress over time. Medications may help control symptoms, but the disorder has no cure.
- Ototoxic medications. Certain drugs – especially antibiotics, diuretics, chemotherapy medications and salicylates – can cause hearing loss that may be temporary or permanent.
Since most hearing loss develops gradually over time, it can be difficult to know how well you are hearing now compared with how well you used to hear. Only an accurate hearing test can reveal if you are having difficulty with specific sounds, and if so, how you might be able to hear better.