What is Hearing Loss?

Understanding Hearing Loss

If you think you may have a hearing loss, you are in good company. The fact is, 17 percent of all adult Americans struggle with some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). That’s 36 million people in the U.S. suffering from a loss right now! Hearing can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. Losing your hearing can be frustrating and keep you from living life to the fullest. If you or one of your loved ones fall into that category, it’s important that you understand what is happening.

Here are some of the basics of hearing loss:

Types of Hearing Loss

There are three types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural, and mixed. They all concern a failure to transfer sound along the auditory path, but they differ in the location of the impairment.

Conductive Hearing Loss
In the case of a Conductive loss, sound is impaired in the outer and/or middle ear. This usually results in reduced sound levels and the loss of faint sounds. Common causes may include ear infections, earwax, fluid in the middle ear from a cold, among other diseases and disorders. The most common treatments are medical and surgical for this type of loss, but in some cases hearing aids can be effective alternatives.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss
When there is failure to fully or accurately transmit sound through the inner ear (cochlea) or along the neural pathways, this is called a Sensorineural loss. Usually the cause of this failure is damage to the interior workings of the cochlea.

When you hear, sound vibrations are funneled from the outer ear, through the middle ear, and into the cochlea, where they pass over and stimulate tiny hair cells. When damaged, these hair cells cannot accurately convert sound vibrations into the neuro-electrical impulses that travel through the auditory nerve to the brain. The result is a reduction in perception and interpretation of the hearing impulses – in other words: a reduction in the ability to pick up the sound in the first place and a reduction in the ability to figure out what the sound is. This decrease in hearing sensitivity is typically treated by carefully targeting sound amplification with hearing aids to compensate for damaged hair cells.

Causes of a Sensorineural loss can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired (after birth). Congenital causes might include: infections, prematurity, hereditary factors, or birth trauma. Acquired causes include: overexposure to noise, ear infections, head injury, disease (like meningitis or encephalitis), or a negative side effect of some drugs.

Mixed Hearing Loss
This is just what it sounds like: a mixture of a Conductive and Sensorineural loss. This type of loss occurs when one type of loss is present and damage occurs to another part of the ear, causing both types to be present at the same time. Treatments for this type of hearing loss usually include medical and surgical procedures, but in some cases hearing aids can be effective as well.

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