Your odds of developing hearing loss at some time in your life are unfortunately very high, even more so as you age. In the US, 48 million individuals report some amount of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the symptoms and take protective actions to reduce injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to zero in on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three forms of hearing loss
Generally speaking, there are three types of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is triggered by some form of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Frequent causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, and genetic malformations of the ear.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This form of hearing loss is the most prevalent and makes up about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is triggered by injury to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves running from the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter through the outer ear, hit the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, due to destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is supplied to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and normally affects speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, unlike conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and can’t be corrected with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has a range of possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The final two, direct exposure to loud noise and aging, represent the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news since it means that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, obviously, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully understand the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should remember that injury to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very gradually. Therefore, the symptoms advance so slowly and gradually that it can be nearly impossible to perceive.
A small amount of hearing loss each year will not be very perceptible to you, but after a number of years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So even though you may think that everybody is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to excess levels
- Constantly asking others to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Becoming exceedingly tired at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you might have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to arrange a hearing exam. Hearing tests are quick and pain-free, and the earlier you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to retain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is great news since it is without question the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the United States could be prevented by adopting some simple protective measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with extended exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. As a result, at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could damage your hearing.
Here are some tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Apply the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Also think about investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at concerts – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the threshold of safe volume (you could harm your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears in the workplace – if you work in a high-volume profession, check with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a variety of household and recreational activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during extended exposure.
If you already have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can significantly improve your life. Hearing aids can enhance your conversations and relationships and can protect against any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you might have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and easy hearing test today!