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Have you been having difficulty understanding what other people say? Has it been a while since you heard birds singing? Do people tell you that you seem to be hearing with more difficulty? It could be that you have sensorineural hearing loss.
Types of Hearing Loss
There are two main types of hearing loss: conductive and sensorineural. There is also a third type, called mixed, which is simply a combination of these two main types.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss has to do with the pathways that the mechanical energy of sound takes through your ears. Essentially, any hearing problems that have to do with the outer or middle ear are conductive in nature. Conductive hearing loss can result from things like earwax buildup, eardrum perforation, middle ear infections, or problems with the three tiny bones in the middle ear.
From the list of causes above, you may have guessed that conductive hearing loss is often curable. Removing an earwax blockage can restore hearing to normal. Eardrum perforations can heal or, in some cases, be repaired. Once an ear infection subsides and the fluid drains out of the middle ear, hearing is likely to return to normal. Surgery can sometimes correct problems with the bones in the middle ear.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss results from problems in the inner ear. The most common cause is the death or damage of the stereocilia, the tiny, hair-like cells inside the cochlea. The cochlea is a shell-shaped organ that houses thousands of stereocilia. These tiny cells are responsible for transducing (converting) the mechanical energy of sound into the electricity that our brains can understand.
The stereocilia can be damaged by loud noise, but are also susceptible to collateral damage from other health problems in the body, as well as exposure to certain chemicals or medications. Unfortunately, once stereocilia are damaged or destroyed, they cannot be healed.
Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss
There are some common causes of sensorineural hearing loss of which it’s good to be aware. Not all of the causes of sensorineural hearing loss can be controlled, and the Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss has noted that there is a genetic component to just about every type of hearing loss.
- Aging – Age-related hearing loss, or “presbycusis,” is by far the most common type of hearing loss. Affecting about one-third of Americans aged 65–74, it often occurs so slowly over time that we don’t even notice it is happening.
- Noise – Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) has become more common in modern times. While there was a reduction in rates of NIHL around the turn of the millennium, rates have surged in recent years, with about 17% of Gen-Z experiencing some degree of NIHL. While NIHL is permanent, it can be prevented by avoiding loud sounds or wearing ear protection whenever we are exposed to them.
- Medical Problems – Certain diseases—like meningitis, mumps and measles—can cause hearing loss. Autoimmune disorders like lupus, thyroiditis and others can also cause some sensorineural hearing loss.
- Traumatic Brain Injury – Even mild traumatic brain injuries—or “concussions”—can cause sensorineural hearing loss. Veterans commonly suffer from “hidden hearing loss,” which is a type of sensorineural hearing loss that affects the auditory nerves. The auditory nerves carry sound signals from the cochlea to the brain, and if they are damaged they may have a more limited bandwidth than normal. This can make it possible to hear normally when there is limited environmental sound, but impossible to hear when the environment is more sonically chaotic.
- Ototoxic Medications – Some antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, and chemotherapy drugs can cause hearing loss. OTC drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can also cause sensorineural hearing loss when taken regularly.
What to Do About Sensorineural Hearing Loss
At present, the best and most common treatment for sensorineural hearing loss is still a good set of hearing aids. Depending on the degree of hearing loss you have, hearing aids can be more or less effective, but most people will see a major improvement in hearing ability with a properly prescribed and programmed set of hearing aids.
If you haven’t looked at hearing aids in a while, it may be worth checking them out again. Modern hearing aids can prioritize speech over background sound, connect wirelessly to all kinds of devices we use on a regular basis, and even come in rechargeable options. Schedule a hearing test today to find out whether hearing aids may be right for you!