Your chances of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regretfully very high, even more so as you age. In the United States, 48 million people report some amount of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s crucial to understand hearing loss, so that you can detect the signs and symptoms and take precautionary actions to prevent injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to zero in on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three types 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 is triggered by some form of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Typical causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and hereditary malformations of the ear.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This type of hearing loss is the most common and accounts for about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It results from 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 arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, due to destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is supplied to the brain for processing is diminished.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and normally affects speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, contrary to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent and cannot be corrected with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has multiple possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head injuries
- Benign tumors
- Exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The last two, direct exposure to loud noise and aging, represent the most widespread causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly good news because it shows that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, obviously, but you can regulate the cumulative exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should bear in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually happens very gradually. Consequently, the symptoms advance so slowly that it can be near impossible to notice.
A slight measure of hearing loss every year will not be very perceptible to you, but after several years it will be very apparent to your friends and family. So even though you may believe that 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
- Problems following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to elevated levels
- Frequently asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Feeling excessively exhausted at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you might have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to schedule a hearing exam. Hearing tests are quick and pain-free, and the earlier 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 good news since it is without question the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the US could be prevented by adopting some simple protective measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with chronic 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 prevent hearing loss:
- Apply the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Also think about investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at concerts – concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the ceiling 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 loud profession, talk with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect your hearing at home – Several household and leisure activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during prolonged 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 forestall any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you suspect you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!