How Hearing Works -Hearing Health

  • How Does the Ear Work?
  • What Causes Hearing Loss?
  • Tips to maintain hearing health
  • What can I do to improve my hearing?

How Does the Ear Work?

The aural or hearing-sense is a complex and intricate process. The ear is made up of three sections: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. These parts work together so you can hear and process sounds. The outer ear, or pinna (the part you can see), picks up sound waves and the waves then travel through the outer ear canal.

Any source of sound sends vibrations or sound waves into the air. When the sound waves hit the eardrum in the middle ear, the eardrum starts to vibrate. When the eardrum vibrates, it moves three tiny bones in your ear. These bones are called the hammer (or malleus), anvil (or incus), and stirrup (or stapes). They help sound move along on its journey into the inner ear.

The vibrations then travel to the cochlea, which is filled with liquid and lined with cells that have thousands of tiny hairs on their surfaces. The sound vibrations make the tiny hairs move. The hairs then change the sound vibrations into nerve signals which go directly to the brain, and are interpreted as sound (music, voice, a car horn, etc.).

What Causes Hearing Loss?

There are many different causes of hearing loss. You may have hearing loss, and not even be aware of it. People of all ages experience gradual hearing loss, often due to the natural aging process or long exposure to loud noise. Other causes of hearing loss include viruses or bacteria, heart conditions or stroke, head injuries, tumors, and certain medications. Treatment for hearing loss will depend on your diagnosis.

Some hearing problems can be medically corrected, first visit a physician who can refer you to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat specialist). If you have ear pain, drainage, excess earwax, hearing loss in only one ear, sudden or rapidly progressive hearing loss, or dizziness, it is especially important that you see an otolaryngologist. Then, get a hearing assessment from an audiologist. A screening test from a hearing aid dealer may not be adequate. Audiologists will assess your ability to hear pure tone sounds and to understand words. The results of these tests will show the degree of hearing loss and whether it is conductive or sensorineural and may give other medical information about your ears and your health.

  • Conductive Hearing Loss
    A hearing loss is conductive when there is a problem with the ear canal, the eardrum and/or the three bones connected to the eardrum. Common reasons for this type of hearing loss are a plug of excess wax in the ear canal or fluid behind the eardrum. Medical treatment or surgery may be available for these and more complex forms of conductive hearing loss.
  • Sensorinural Hearing Loss
    A hearing loss is sensorineural when it results from damage to the inner ear (cochlea) or auditory nerve, often as a result of the aging process and/or noise exposure. Sounds may be unclear and/or too soft. Sensitivity to loud sounds may occur. Medical or surgical intervention cannot correct most sensorineural hearing losses. However, hearing aids may help you reclaim some sounds that you are missing as a result of nerve deafness.

Tips to maintain hearing health

  1. If you work in noisy places or commute to work in noisy traffic or construction, choose quiet leisure activities instead of noisy ones.
  2. Develop the habit of wearing hearing protection when you know you will be exposed to noise for a long time.
  3. Earplugs quiet about 25 dB of sound and can mean the difference between a dangerous and a safe level of noise.
  4. Try not to use several noisy machines at the same time.
  5. Try to keep television sets, stereos and headsets low in volume.

What can I do to improve my hearing?

  • Utilize sound amplifying devices such as hearing instruments
  • Use assisstive and alerting devices
  • Use good communication strategies:
    • Eliminate or lower unnecessary noises around you.
    • Let friends and family know about your hearing loss and ask them to speak slowly and more clearly.
    • Ask people to face you when they are speaking to you, so you can   watch their faces and see their expressions.

Reprinted from the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Web site with permission of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, copyright © 2013.