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How Do We Hear?
Sound waves travel into the ear canal to the eardrum where they are converted into sound vibrations, and passed through the middle ear bones into the inner ear, the cochlea.
There are thousands of tiny hair cells inside the cochlea, which convert sound vibrations into electrical signals and send them to the brain through the auditory nerve. This tells the brain you are hearing a sound.
At the apex of every hair cell lies a small patch of stereocilia, which rock back and forth when sound vibrations are present. When sound is too loud, the stereocilia can be bent or broken, causing the hair cell to die, and removing that source of signal to the brain. Once a hair cell dies, it never grows back.
High frequency hair cells are most easily damaged, which is why people with hearing loss often have the most difficulty hearing high pitched noises, like crickets or birds chirping.
Types of Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound is not conducted efficiently through the outer ear canal to the eardrum and the tiny bones of the middle ear. This type of loss usually involves a reduction in sound level or the ability to hear faint sounds and can often be corrected medically or surgically.
Some possible causes of conductive hearing loss include fluid in the middle ear, infection, allergies, perforated eardrum, impacted earwax, presence of a foreign body, or a malformation of the ear.
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the inner ear (cochlea), or to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain. This type of loss cannot be medically or surgically corrected. This is the most common type of permanent hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss reduces the ability to hear faint sounds. Even when speech is loud enough to hear, it may still be unclear or sound muffled.
Possible causes of conductive hearing loss include illness, aging, head trauma, exposure to loud noise, genetics, or drugs that are toxic to hearing.
NOTE: Mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. This occurs when there’s damage in the outer/middle ear and the inner ear or auditory nerve.
Hearing Loss Symptoms
On average, it takes people seven years from the time they think they may have a hearing loss to the time they actually seek treatment. Typically, friends and family will notice difficulty hearing before it becomes apparent to the person with the loss. If you can say yes to any of the following questions, you may have hearing loss:
A Message to Caregivers
If you’re noticing symptoms in a friend or family member, remember that they may still be in denial. Rather than pushing someone to get a hearing aid, a hearing test is an impartial measurement that takes subjectivity out of the equation. But ultimately, the person with the hearing loss has to come to terms with it.
There are treatment options available depending on the cause and severity of the hearing loss. In most cases, a hearing aid is the perfect choice to correct the effects of hearing loss and get back to the life you and your loved ones deserve.
In the meantime, there are several important communication suggestions:
Regardless of treatment, individuals with a hearing impairment often feel self-conscious for a variety of reasons. If your loved one wears a hearing aid, for example, he or she may worry that others notice the device and treat him or her differently because of it. Help your loved one to feel less self-conscious by recognizing how important these devices are to his or her standard of living. Encourage your loved one to wear his or her hearing aids regularly and facilitate this process by choosing activities that allow you to limit background noise. In this way, you can help your loved one adjust to his or her situation while improving quality of life and easing difficulties in communication for both of you.