Hearing loss, whether it is mild, profound, or somewhere in between, affects about one in five Americans of all ages and one in three Americans over 65. While some people are born with either hearing loss or the propensity for future hearing loss, most of these people experience this condition later in life, usually as a result of environmental or health factors.
Hearing loss is nearly always preventable, at least to a very large extent. To develop a plan of action, it’s very important to understand the causes of hearing loss. This knowledge often makes your plan more effective, increasing the chances of success.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Normally, sound waves travel from the outer ear, which acts as kind of a collection dish, through the middle ear (mostly the ear canal), and to the auditory nerve. What seems like a simple and straightforward process is actually very intricate and complex. Even a partial breakdown can cause significant hearing loss. Some specific causes include:
Otosclerosis: This bone abnormality is nearly always a genetic condition. In a normal ear, the stapes (third tiny bone in the middle ear) vibrates when exposed to sound waves, thus magnifying them and sending them to the auditory nerve. But in an otosclerosis ear, the bone does not vibrate and thus either inhibits the sound wave or blocks it altogether. This condition is commonly associated with measles.
Otitis Media: In ear infections, swelling and inflammation block the eustachian tubes, which normally move fluid out of the middle ear and down the throat. These infections are especially common in children, because their eustachian tubes are abnormally small. The fluid interferes with the ossicles’ and eardrum’s natural movement.
Tumors: No one is exactly sure why tumors develop, but once they do, they can block sound waves in much the same way as non-vibrating bones, because they are permanent obstacles.
Other causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax buildup or a malformation in the outer or middle ear.
In most cases, conductive hearing loss requires surgical correction. A highly-skilled doctor can remove obstructions, re-shape muscles or bones, and do whatever else is necessary. Since most of these procedures are very delicate, recovery time is usually brief, and in most cases, the results are very good.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
This type of hearing loss affects the auditory nerve itself, or the tissue surrounding this nerve. Whereas people with conductive hearing loss cannot receive sounds as well, people with sensorineural conditions can usually “hear” sounds just fine, but they cannot interpret them.
Some causes are relatively easy to address. For example, a very high fever can damage the cochlea (shell-shaped portion of the inner ear). So, it’s a good idea to have an infrared thermometer in the house, so fever patients know when their temperature gets to around 103. Other causes include trauma injuries, such as loud noises or head injuries, and adverse health conditions, such as presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) or Meniere’s Disease (a disorder which causes vertigo and other symptoms). Some proven treatment include:
Corticosteroids to decrease swelling and inflammation,
Emergency surgery to remove fluid, and
Hearing aids and implants are the most common treatments, because the issue is not so much sound collection as a problem with the nerve.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Many people experience both kinds of hearing loss, especially since the causes of conductive and sensorineural problems often overlap. In these situations, it’s usually best to address the conductive issue first, because it affects sound collection, and then proceed to the sensorineural nerve-related issues.
Hearing loss can be quite unsettling, but with proper treatment, it is also one of the most manageable health conditions.