Man holding hand to ear simulating difficulty hearing

To express that hearing loss is prevalent is a bit of an understatement. In the United States, 48 million individuals report some extent of hearing loss. This means, on average, for every five people you meet, one will have hearing loss. And at the age of 65, it’s one out of three.

With odds like this, how do you escape becoming one of those five?

To help you understand how to preserve healthy hearing all through your life, we’ll take a closer look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s posting.

How Normal Hearing Works

Hearing loss is the disturbance of normal hearing, so a good place to start is with an understanding of how normal hearing is supposed to work.

You can picture normal hearing as comprised of three main processes:

  1. The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are created in the environment and move through the air, like ripples in a lake, eventually making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and ultimately striking the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are then transmitted to the middle ear bones, which then arouse the tiny nerve cells of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ of the inner ear.
  2. The electrical conduction from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once stimulated, translates the vibrations into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve.
  3. The perception of sound in the brain. The brain perceives the electrochemical signal as sound.

What’s fascinating is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, vibrations, electric current, and chemical reactions. It’s an entirely physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.

The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Go Wrong

There are three primary types of hearing loss, each interfering with some element of the normal hearing process:

  1. Conductive hearing loss
  2. Sensorineural hearing loss
  3. Mixed hearing loss (a mix of conductive and sensorineural)

Let’s take a closer look at the first two, including the causes and treatment of each.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss interferes with the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is due to anything that blocks conduction.

Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects within the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, pierced eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.

Treatment of conductive hearing loss consists of removing the obstruction, dealing with the infection, or surgical correction of the malformation of the outer ear, the eardrum, or the middle ear bones.

If you suffer from conductive hearing loss, for instance from impacted earwax, you could possibly begin hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more serious kinds of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the simplest to treat and can restore normal hearing completely.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss disrupts the electrical conduction of sound from the cochlea to the brain. This is due to the deterioration to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.

With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain is provided with weakened electrical signals, reducing the volume and clarity of sound.

The principal causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:

  • Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
  • Normal aging (presbycusis)
  • Infections and traumatic accidents
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Cancerous growths of the inner ear
  • Side effects of medication
  • Abrupt exposure to exceedingly loud sounds
  • Long-term exposure to loud sounds

Sensorineural hearing loss is most commonly connected with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be protected against by circumventing those sounds or by safeguarding your hearing with earplugs.

This form of hearing loss is a bit more complicated to treat. There are no present surgical or medical procedures to repair the nerve cells of the inner ear. However, hearing aids and cochlear implants are very effective at taking over the amplification assignments of the nerve cells, creating the perception of louder, more detailed sound.


The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is essentially some mixture of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.

If you have any trouble hearing, or if you have any ear pain or dizziness, it’s best to pay a visit to your physician or hearing professional as soon as possible. In virtually every case of hearing loss, you’ll attain the best results the earlier you attend to the underlying issue.