Hearing Loss: Causes and Types

Man holding hand to ear simulating difficulty hearing

To express that hearing loss is widespread is somewhat of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million people describe some extent of hearing loss. That means, 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 do you prevent becoming one of those five?

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

How Healthy Hearing Works

Hearing loss is the disturbance of normal hearing, so the best place to get started is with a familiarity of how normal hearing is supposed to work.

You can picture normal hearing as consisting of three main 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, ultimately making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and ultimately hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are subsequently transferred to the middle ear bones, which then activate 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 activated, translates the vibrations into electrical impulses that are sent via the auditory nerve to the brain.
  3. The perception of sound within 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, vibrations, electric current, and chemical reactions. It’s a completely physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.

The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Be Interrupted

There are three main types of hearing loss, each interfering with some component 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 inhibits the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is the result of anything that hinders conduction.

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

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

If you have conductive hearing loss, for instance from impacted earwax, you could possibly start hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more severe kinds of conductive hearing loss, this type can be the easiest to treat and can bring back normal hearing entirely.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss interferes with 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 receives weaker electrical signals, reducing the volume and clarity of sound.

The principal 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
  • Sudden exposure to extremely loud sounds
  • Long-term subjection to loud sounds

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

This form of hearing loss is a little more difficult to treat. There are no existing surgical or medical procedures to repair the nerve cells of the inner ear. However, hearing aids and cochlear implants are very effective at taking on the amplification responsibilities of the nerve cells, resulting in the perception of louder, crisper sound.

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

If you have any struggle hearing, or if you have any ear pain or dizziness, it’s best to talk with your doctor or hearing professional as soon as possible. In almost every case of hearing loss, you’ll get the greatest results the sooner you treat the underlying problem.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.