How Your Ears Work, and What Happens When They Don't
If you are capable of hearing, you likely pick up on millions of sounds every day. Even the ones you don’t register are processed and filtered by your brain as background noise. Every single noise is sifted through, allowing you to pick up on unusual sounds, speech, and possible threats. However, many people neglect their ears. To mark World Hearing Day, this article will touch on the importance of our ears, and how to care for them when hearing loss interferes.
Parts of the Ear
When referring to the ears, many people only think of the part we are capable of seeing. This includes the shell of your ear, as well as the ear canal. However, there’s more ground to cover than this. The ear consists of many parts, which work in tandem to help you hear. If one of these parts fails to perform properly, your hearing will be affected.
The outer ear includes the auricle, or your visible ear, the ear canal, and the eardrum. Beyond that is the middle ear, which consists of your ossicles. These are three little bones known as the malleus, incus, and stapes. The Eustachian tube is also included in the middle ear and helps regulate pressure. Your inner ear is located farther inside. Your cochlea is located here, as well as your vestibule and semicircular canals.
Now that we know the parts, we can begin discussing how they work.
How Do We Hear?
Our visible ear is specially designed to funnel sound into our ear canal. From there, the vibrations travel down the ear canal and strike the tympanic membrane, or eardrum. The eardrum vibrates, and these vibrations interact with the ossicles. The ossicles vibrate, amplifying the sound and sending it farther into the ear towards the cochlea.
The cochlea is a spiral-shaped organ that’s filled with fluid and lined with microscopic, fine hairs. These hairs convert the vibrations into nerve impulses that can be processed. Finally, these signals are sent through the auditory nerve to the brain, where they are filtered through and registered as sound.
Much like breathing or pumping blood, this complicated process is occurring every moment of every day, and even continues while you’re sleeping or unaware. If you’ve ever been awoken by a sound in the night, that’s because your ears are working overtime to keep you safe and semi-aware of your surroundings.
Types of Hearing Problems
Because hearing involves so many specific parts, there are many things that can go wrong. Different parts of the hearing chain can break down, leaving you unable to process or hear certain sounds. Loud noises, old age, and even brain injury can result in a loss of hearing. These losses can be mild, or seriously profound.
There are many types of hearing problems, and functional hearing loss exists as well. These are instances where your hearing is not completely gone, but hindered in some way by an ongoing issue. Many forms of hearing loss are permanent, while others can be solved with medical intervention. Inventions like hearing aids can alleviate hearing loss as well.
In order to discuss treatment of hearing loss, let’s explore the different types of hearing problems.
- Auditory neuropathy. A condition in which the auditory nerve is affected. This can be caused by a number of factors and affect the hearing in varying ways. This is an issue with the brain and nerves, not the ears themselves.
- Sensorineural hearing loss. This is an issue with the fine hairs inside the cochlea. As they become worn down or damaged, the ability to hear is impacted. This is the most common form of hearing loss, especially among seniors and people in high-noise environments.
- Conductive hearing loss. This occurs when there is a blockage within the middle ear. This blockage can be caused by fluid, a tumour, or earwax muffling the transmission of sound waves from the outer ear. Usually, the issue is solved after the blockage is removed.
- Mixed hearing loss. This isn’t necessarily a type of hearing loss, but a combination of sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. Where sensorineural hearing loss is permanent, the conductive hearing loss can be solved, alleviating the condition.
- Tinnitus. This is not a condition, but rather a symptom of another issue. Tinnitus is caused by other factors, usually sensorineural hearing loss. In order to treat the tinnitus, you need to treat the root issue.
Causes of Hearing Loss
Many cases of hearing loss occur at birth, or within the first few years of life. These are typically genetic, or caused by complications during the pregnancy or birth. Illnesses like meningitis, measles, or mumps can also cause hearing loss. However, many people who suffer hearing loss later in life experience it due to infection or long-term exposure to extreme sound.
Hypertension, diabetes, and other conditions can also put you at risk of hearing loss. If you’re worried about your hearing this World Hearing Day, the only surefire way to avoid hearing loss is to be aware of your surroundings and avoid situations where the volume can become detrimental. Wear earplugs if you work in an environment with high sound, such as firing ranges, construction sites, and concert halls.
If you regularly find yourself listening to loud music over speakers or through headphones, consider turning down the volume. Many young people are experiencing hearing loss and tinnitus at younger ages, due to overexposure to loud music.
The Importance of Hearing Tests
The only way to treat hearing loss is to recognise it and seek help. However, many people live with hearing loss so long that they don’t know they have it. The human brain is extremely good at adaptation and will adjust itself over time to accommodate for your hearing loss. However, the longer you go without treatment, the more intense the condition will become.
In order to prevent further damage, you must act. Knowing how the ear works is the first step to recognising issues when they arise. Get your hearing tested often, and don’t hesitate to speak to an audiologist if you think there might be an issue with your hearing. If you do develop some form of hearing loss, identifying it early on can save you from further damage, and prevent stress, mental issues, and other side effects.
World Hearing Day 2019 on March 3 is approaching, why not schedule an audiogram for the occasion?