The ears complexity requires an annual test to adequately monitor changes to your hearing response.
Did you know that the human hearing organ is smaller than a pea when coiled up in its natural, snail-like shape? Despite its size, it manages to take in sounds from many sources, often at the same time, and sorts them into categories that allow the brain to make sense of it all. That includes not only determining that a sound is speech or noise, but also what direction it came from and how loud or soft the sound is that’s being emitted.
So how do our ears accomplish this amazing task? They are divided into three parts: the outer, the middle and the inner ear. The outer ear acts like a funnel, catching the sound and helping direct it to the ear canal. Once the sound is inside, it travels to the eardrum or tympanic membrane, causing a vibration not unlike striking the top of a drum. On the other side of the eardrum, three tiny bones attached like a chain are in an air-filled cavity; this is the middle ear space. The vibrations cause the middle ear bones to sway back and forth. When this happens, they push on a small opening that is connected to a snail-shaped tube filled with fluid and the tiny hair-like cells of the inner ear. The hair-like cells conduct the sound and it is sent to the brain as electrical impulses, where it is processed as sound.
There are three types of hearing loss that can impact this system.
- The first is conductive hearing loss, which can often be reversible or treated with surgery or medication. It is caused when there is a problem in the outer or the middle ear. Things like ear wax blocking the sound on the way to the eardrum or fluid in the air-filled space of the middle ear can cause conductive hearing loss. The most common cause of conductive hearing loss is middle ear infections, making this type of hearing loss more prevalent in children.
- The second and most common type of hearing loss is sensorineural, or nerve deafness, a permanent type that is caused by problems in the inner ear. The most frequent cause is damage to the tiny hairlike cells that send signals to the brain. This can happen if sounds come into the ear that are too loud or as tissues within the ear are aging. It is often treated with hearing aids to restore the hearing that has been lost.
- The third type is mixed hearing loss, which is a combination of hearing loss in the outer or middle ear and hearing loss in the inner ear. Oftentimes, some of the damage can be corrected, but a portion of it will be permanent. While reliable data on the prevalence of this type of loss is unavailable, hearing aids can be used to treat it as well.
It is important, especially as we age, to have a hearing test once a year to monitor our hearing health and discuss treatment options if necessary. If no hearing loss is present, a baseline can be established, which can be important if there are future changes to the hearing response. An annual test gives you the information you need to best care for you hearing system.
April Burdett, Au.D., CCC-A is a Doctor of Audiology who currently serves as the Director of Training for a hearing aid manufacturer. She previously served as a pediatric hospital manager at Cook children’s Medical Center and an Assistant Audiology Professor at Lamar University. Burdett received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nevada in Speech Language Pathology and Audiology and earned a Master of Science degree in communication disorders from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.