Your chances of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regretfully quite high, even more so as you grow older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some level of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s vital to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the symptoms and take precautionary measures to avoid damage 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
Generally speaking, there are three forms of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural)
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 impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, and hereditary malformations of the ear.
This article will focus on sensorineural hearing loss as it is by far the most common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This category of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is triggered by 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, hit the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, because of damage to the hair cells (the tiny 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 affects speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, as opposed to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and cannot be remedied with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has a variety of possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The last two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, constitute the most frequent causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly good news since it means that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).
To fully grasp the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should bear in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually comes about very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms advance so slowly that it can be just about impossible to detect.
A slight measure of hearing loss every year will not be very noticeable to you, but after many years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So even though you might think that everybody is mumbling, it may be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to elevated levels
- Regularly asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Becoming exceedingly exhausted at the end of the day
If you detect any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you may have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to arrange a hearing exam. Hearing tests are quick and pain-free, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to conserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news because it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the US could be prevented by implementing some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially damage your hearing with prolonged 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 harm your hearing.
Here are some tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Apply the 60/60 rule – when listening to a portable music player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Also think about buying noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at live shows – concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the limit of safe volume (you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize the volume with the use 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 high-volume occupation, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a variety of household and recreational activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.
If you already have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can substantially improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can prevent any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!