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Hearing loss is a common health concern that millions of people navigate on a daily basis. There are a variety of factors that can contribute to hearing loss including pre-existing medical conditions, genetic history, and environmental exposure to loud noise. A decreased ability to hear can impact all aspects of life: communication, relationships, and overall health. If untreated, it can increase the risk of medical conditions such as dementia in addition to accidental injuries. Fortunately, there are several useful ways that hearing loss is treated.
But is it curable? The short answer is: it depends on the specific type of hearing loss.
How Hearing Works
The auditory system, the system for hearing, involves a complex process that requires the complete use of the ears. Our ears consist of three main parts:
- Outer Ear: includes the most visible part of the ear (the skin and cartilage), the ear canal, and the ear drum which separates the outer ear from the middle ear.
- Middle Ear: is where the auditory ossicles are located. These are three small bones (among the smallest in the human body). The Eustachian tube is also in the middle ear. This tube is connected to the upper throat and back of the nose and is responsible for equalizing pressure within the ear.
- Inner Ear: consists of the cochlea which is filled with hair cells and fluid, in addition to nerve pathways that go to the brain.
The outer ear absorbs sound from the environment which travels down the ear canal and lands on the eardrum. The vibrations from the sound waves strike the eardrum and ossicles in the middle ear and are pushed through to the inner ear. This activates the labyrinth like structure that is the cochlea and causes the movement of the hair cells and fluid which then helps translate the soundwaves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain through the auditory nerve. The brain is then able to process and make meaning of this sound which is how we understand what we are hearing. Damage to any of these parts, disrupts this process and results in hearing loss.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
There are three types of hearing loss: sensorineural, conductive, and mixed. Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type and accounts for nearly 90% of all hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is caused by damage of the inner ear, specifically the hair cells in the cochlea and/or the nerve pathways leading to the brain.
Hair cells in the cochlea (unlike other types of cells) do not regenerate. Humans are born with all of the hair cells in the ear that we will ever have which amounts to thousands in each ear. These hair cells can lose sensitivity and be damaged. Because they do not regenerate, damage is permanent. This means that sensorineural hearing loss is not curable.
- Causes: this type of hearing loss can be caused by a variety of factors including: age (known as presbycusis), exposure to loud noise, head and/or neck injuries, tumors, and viral infections.
- Impact: sensorineural hearing loss affects the volume and clarity of the sounds that you are able to hear. This makes it difficult to understand and process speech as words sound muffled.
- Treatment: there is no medical treatment or surgical options that can repair the hair cells in the cochlea or nerves in the inner ear. This type of hearing loss is often treated with hearing aids.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Not as common, conductive hearing loss occurs when there is damage of the outer or middle ear. This prevents sound from moving through the ear and reaching the inner ear. Depending on what specifically caused it, this type of hearing loss can be temporary or permanent.
- Causes: there is a range of causes including wax buildup, ear infections (swimmer’s ear), abnormal ear growths, foreign objects entering the ear, tumors, bone-like protrusions
- Impact: conductive hearing loss impacts the loudness of sounds but because the inner ear is normal, clarity (or ability to process) is not an issue.
- Treatment: depending on the cause, there are medical and surgical treatments that can cure some forms of conductive hearing loss. Excess earwax can be removed, abnormal growths and obstructions can be corrected through surgical procedures. These causes often result in temporary hearing loss.
Mixed Hearing Loss
As the name suggests, mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.
If you’ve experienced changes in your hearing, contact us today to schedule an appointment for a hearing test. While some forms of hearing loss are not 100% curable, it is highly treatable with the proper tools.