Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some time in your life are regretfully very high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some level of hearing loss, including almost two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the symptoms and take protective actions to reduce injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to focus on the most widespread form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three forms of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and results from some form of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and genetic malformations of the ear.
This article will focus on sensorineural hearing loss as it is by far the most common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This type of hearing loss is the most prevalent and makes up about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is the result of injury to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves running from the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter through the outer ear, strike the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, as a result of destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is transmitted to the brain for processing is diminished.
This weakened signal is perceived as muffled or faint and normally has an effect on speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and can’t be corrected with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has a range of possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The last two, exposure to loud noise and aging, represent the most frequent causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly good news as it shows that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t prevent aging, obviously, but you can regulate the cumulative exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always occurs very gradually. Consequently, the symptoms progress so slowly that it can be near impossible to detect.
A slight amount of hearing loss each year will not be very noticeable to you, but after many years it will be very noticeable to your family and friends. So even though you might think everyone is mumbling, it may be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are a few of the symptoms to look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Trouble following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to unreasonable levels
- Continuously asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Feeling excessively tired at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you may have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to arrange a hearing exam. Hearing tests are easy and pain-free, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to retain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news since it is without question the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the United States could be eliminated by adopting some simple protective measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially damage your hearing with extended exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. Which means at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could damage your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can reduce the risk of hearing loss:
- Implement the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Also consider investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at concerts – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the limit of safe volume (you could harm your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears at the workplace – if you work in a loud profession, talk with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a variety of household and recreational activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during extended exposure.
If you currently have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can significantly improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can protect against any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and easy hearing test today!