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To express that hearing loss is widespread is a bit of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million people describe some level of hearing loss. As a result,, on average, for every five people you encounter, one will have hearing loss. And at the age of 65, it’s one out of three.

With odds like that, how can you escape becoming one of those five?

To help you understand how to maintain healthier hearing all through your life, we’ll take a look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s article.

How Normal Hearing Works

Hearing loss is the disturbance of normal hearing, so an appropriate place to start off is with an understanding of how normal hearing is supposed to work.

You can picture normal hearing as comprised of three chief processes:

  1. The physical and mechanical transmission of sound waves. Sound waves are produced in the environment and propel through the air, like ripples in a pond, eventually making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and finally hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are then transmitted to the middle ear bones, which then trigger the tiny nerve cells of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ of the inner ear.
  2. The electrical transmission from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once stimulated, converts the vibrations into electrical impulses that are delivered to the brain via the auditory nerve.
  3. The perception of sound in the brain. The brain perceives the electrochemical signal as sound.

What’s interesting is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, oscillations, electric current, and chemical reactions. It’s an entirely physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.

The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Be Interrupted

There are three principal types of hearing loss, each interfering with some aspect of the normal hearing process:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. Mixed hearing loss (a mixture of conductive and sensorineural)

Let’s take a closer look at the first two, including the causes and treatment of each.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss interferes with the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is due to anything that obstructs conduction.

Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects inside of the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, perforated eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.

Treatment of conductive hearing loss includes extracting the obstruction, treating the infection, or surgical correction of the malformation of the outer ear, the eardrum, or the middle ear bones.

If you suffer from conductive hearing loss, for instance from impacted earwax, you could possibly start hearing better immediately after a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more severe kinds of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the easiest to treat and can bring back normal hearing completely.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss impedes the electrical conduction of sound from the inner ear to the brain. This results from damage to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.

With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain is provided with weaker electrical signals, reducing the volume and quality of sound.

The chief causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:

  • Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
  • Normal aging (presbycusis)
  • Infections and traumatic accidents
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Cancerous growths of the inner ear
  • Side effects of medication
  • Abrupt exposure to exceedingly loud sounds
  • Long-term exposure to loud sounds

Sensorineural hearing loss is most frequently connected with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by staying away from those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.

This type of hearing loss is a bit more challenging to treat. There are no current surgical or medical procedures to repair the nerve cells of the inner ear. However, hearing aids and cochlear implants are extremely effective at taking over the amplification responsibilities of the nerve cells, generating the perception of louder, sharper sound.

The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is simply some mixture of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.

If you have any difficulty hearing, or if you have any ear discomfort or lightheadedness, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or hearing professional as soon as possible. In virtually every instance of hearing loss, you’ll get the greatest results the sooner you treat the underlying issue.