When the ear is not working properly, sound information has a tougher time getting to the brain. This is hearing loss.
Hearing loss can be both psychologically and socially debilitating. Understanding speech, especially in noisy environments, becomes more difficult and requires more effort and energy. Feelings of social isolation frequently occur.
Very mild hearing loss may be barely perceptible or not perceptible at all, but severe or even “profound” hearing loss may make speech communication impossible. There are two general types of hearing loss that are indicative of two different categories of problems.
Conductive Hearing Loss
One type of hearing loss is a problem with the vibrations of sound reaching the inner ear, and is called “conductive hearing loss.”
Conductive hearing loss can be caused by too much ear wax in the outer ear, an ear infection in the middle ear, or malfunction or disruption of the ear bones. One easy way to demonstrate a conductive hearing loss is to push on the front tab of the ear canal (called the tragus) and close it off. We do that when loud sounds are bothering us, because it blocks the vibration of sound from getting further into the ear to some degree. Causes of conductive hearing loss are frequently correctable.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
The other type of hearing loss is a problem with the hair cells or hearing nerve, and is called “sensorineural hearing loss.” When hair cells are damaged they do not grow back, and when hearing nerve cells die they are not replaced. Damage to these cells can occur with excessive loud noise exposure, strokes, and tumors involving the hearing nerve, but is most commonly associated with typical age-related hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss can also occur suddenly in one ear. This type of hearing loss can feel like the ear is blocked, but there is no physical blockage.
While we can sometimes determine the cause of sudden sensorineural hearing loss, often we cannot, but there are treatments involving steroids that can improve the chances that the hearing returns in that ear. This is an emergency, because these treatments need to be given within days of when the hearing loss began in order to be effective.
Determining the best way to help your hearing loss is a very individual experience that requires the combined efforts of the audiologist and the physician, but there are a few generalizations.