Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some time in your life are regrettably very high, even more so as you age. In the United States, 48 million individuals report some degree of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s crucial to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the symptoms and take preventive actions to avoid injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to zero in on the most widespread type 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 mix of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and results from some form of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Common 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 form of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It results from damage to the hair cells (the nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter through the external ear, hit the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, due to damage to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is sent to the brain for processing is weakened.
This diminished signal is perceived as muffled or faint and usually impacts speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, as opposed to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is typically permanent and can’t be remedied with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has several potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The final two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly great news as it shows that most cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t prevent aging, of course, but you can minimize the cumulative exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully understand the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that injury to the nerve cells of hearing usually develops very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms advance so gradually that it can be virtually impossible to perceive.
A slight measure of hearing loss every year will not be very recognizable to you, but after several years it will be very noticeable to your family and friends. So although you may think everyone is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Trouble following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to elevated levels
- Continually asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Feeling exceedingly 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 best to arrange for a hearing test. Hearing tests are easy and painless, and the earlier 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 good news since it is by far the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the US could be avoided by implementing 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 some tips on how you can prevent 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. Additionally, consider investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at concerts – concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, far above the threshold 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 preserve the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears on the job – if you work in a high-volume profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect your hearing at home – Several household and recreational activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.
If you already have hearing loss, all hope is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can dramatically improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can prevent any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and simple hearing test today!