It doesn’t take much hearing loss to make communication difficult and interfere with the way we interact with other people; that goes for our closest personal relationships, our professional relationships and even short-lived transactional relationships in the course of a day. That makes healthy hearing an important part of any contact we have with others.
Hearing is a delicate balancing act in which mechanisms of the inner ear and brain work together in interpreting sound. Problems with either the inner or outer ear can prevent important sound information from reaching the brain; such partial information can be the source of confusion and misunderstanding of what is being said. And as we can all attest, confusion and misunderstanding are not relationship-friendly things, so a basic understanding of hearing loss is a good thing to have.
Ear problems involving the outer or middle ear are referred to as conductive hearing loss. Problems related to the inner ear or the ability of the brain to process sound information are called sensorineural hearing loss. These are two distinct types of hearing loss with differing treatment methods.
Binaural Hearing: The Preferred Method
The brain’s ability to process information from both ears at once is called “binaural hearing.” This perfect situation is great for communication. It lets us understand sound clearly, identify exactly where it’s coming from and even pick out the sounds we want to hear when they’re competing with other sounds in noisy environments.
When one ear lags behind the other in hearing ability, the condition is called “unilateral hearing loss.” People in this situation comprehend only about 30 to 35 percent of what two healthy ears can hear. Unilateral hearing loss can be especially tough on students. For instance, being forced to repeat a grade is much more likely for a child with a poorly functioning ear.
Common Types of Hearing Loss
Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SHL): This most common type of hearing loss tends to result from damage to delicate hair cells in the cochlea (an organ located in the inner ear); those cells are responsible for picking up sounds. Overexposure to loud noises can damage or destroy these cells—or the nerves they connect to—making hearing more difficult. High-frequency sound is usually the first casualty of loud-noise exposure, which can lead to permanent high-frequency hearing loss.
Conductive Hearing Loss: An infection or blockage of the outer or middle ear tends to be the culprit in this type of hearing loss. Middle-ear infections (otitis media) can cause sound-blocking fluid build-ups. A blockage outside the eardrum can be caused by swimmer’s ear or a buildup of earwax. Conductive Hearing Loss is typically treatable, subsiding once the infection or blockage clears, or as the result of needed surgery.
Mixed Hearing Loss: This condition tends to involve some combination of sensorineural hearing loss (SHL) and semi-permanent conductive hearing loss, perhaps an ossicle malfunction in the middle ear (ossicles are tiny bones that conduct sound). Once the conductive hearing loss has been handled through treatment or surgery, hearing should improve; the SHL, however, tends to be permanent.
Unilateral Hearing Loss: This term refers to hearing loss in only one ear. A person can be born with it, it can come on spontaneously and even over the course of several days. In early life, it can interfere with speech and language development; children may also have trouble understanding where sounds are coming from, hearing speech in noisy situations and hearing at longer distances. A focus on communication development can help kids born with unilateral hearing loss achieve academic, economic and social success.
Sudden Hearing Loss: Just as the name suggests, this is a sudden loss in hearing, either total or partial, either immediately or over a 24-hour period. Sudden hearing loss tends to self-resolve within two weeks, but the possibility of permanent hearing loss exists. Steroids may be used to support hearing recovery, but when there is no positive change within two weeks, improvement is unlikely. Immediate treatment greatly increases chances of a full recovery, and about 85 percent of people who seek treatment will get some of their hearing back; so, if sudden hearing loss occurs, consult your physician right away.
High-Frequency Hearing Loss: In cases of high-frequency hearing loss, vowels tend to come through clearly, where consonants like f, s, t, and z are hard to understand. Since it develops slowly over the course of decades, diagnosing high-frequency hearing loss tends to be difficult. Early signs of it include trouble hearing higher-octave sounds, like chirping birds, or the voices of women and small children. It can also be indicated by difficulty conversing in groups or hearing speech amid background noise. Hearing aids are an effective treatment for high-frequency hearing loss, but wearing hearing protection when you’re exposed to loud noises can go a long way toward preventing it in the first place.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I improve my hearing?
Unfortunately, many forms of hearing loss are permanent because there is no cure. Treatment methods that feature amplification fit to your specific hearing loss by a hearing care professional typically have the highest user satisfaction for improved hearing and improved quality of life.
How can I prevent hearing loss?
Protecting your hearing from noise levels greater than 85 decibels at work and during leisurely activities will greatly reduce your chances of noise-induced hearing loss. Many manufacturing jobs require hearing protection in loud environments, but hearing protection is also recommended while ATV riding, hunting, attending concerts and sporting events, and playing music — all situations where your hearing is vulnerable.
What should I do if I get sudden hearing loss?
See your physician immediately; sudden hearing loss is considered a medical emergency. Sudden hearing loss typically resolves on its own within two weeks, but it might not — meaning your hearing might be gone for good. Seeking medical assistance within 72 hours of the onset of sudden hearing loss greatly improves the chances that your hearing will recover.
At what age do people normally start getting hearing loss?
Since hearing loss is cumulative, hearing loss begins as an infant and continues throughout life. Most individuals don’t begin to experience symptoms until their late 20s or early 30s, and by age 45 a yearly hearing check becomes of greater importance. One-third of people beyond the age of 65 have some degree of hearing loss, however mild or severe, and that share of the elderly population increases as they age.
Are some types of hearing loss easier to treat?
Hearing loss is a puzzle that our professionals love to solve, and it is based on your individual experiences, lifestyle, and severity of impairment. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment method for hearing loss — it’s based on the sounds that you can’t hear, which vary greatly, and the sounds that you want to be able to hear. A quality hearing system from a reputable manufacturer isn’t effective until an experienced, qualified hearing care professional programs the technology properly based on your unique hearing needs.
Is hearing loss hereditary?
Though it is difficult to say what genetic factors predispose individuals to hearing loss, there seems to be a connection. Some genetic disorders present at birth cause a hearing loss, but in the absence of a disease, hearing loss can still have a basis in your genetics.
Are there any health downsides to not treating hearing loss?
Research has established a relationship between hearing loss and dementia. There is strong evidence that hearing loss accelerates brain-tissue atrophy, particularly in areas of the brain that auditory nerves would stimulate but can’t because they aren’t receiving a signal (due to a hearing loss). These areas of the brain are also related to memory and speech. Individuals with a mild hearing loss are three times as likely to fall down than those without, and the likelihood of falls increases as degree of hearing loss increases. Hearing loss has also been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, sickle-cell anemia, and other circulatory conditions.
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