Understanding How the Ear Works to Help Prevent Hearing Loss
Gaining a deeper understanding of how the auditory system works can really help by encouraging effective routine practices which can help prevent the onset and severity of hearing loss.
How does the ear work?
The anatomical structure of the ear is actually quite complex, but can be broken down into two main parts to get a clearer picture of how it works:
- Peripheral Hearing System
- Central Hearing System
Peripheral Hearing System
The peripheral hearing system can be further divided into 3 sections based on the structure of the ear:
- Outer ear
- Middle ear
- Inner ear
The outer ear is responsible for collecting sound waves from the environment and funneling them though the ear canal to the ear drum. The outer ear is also known as the pinna or auricle, and is made up of 3 components which are the tragus, helix, and lobule. It is mainly composed of skin, cartilage, and bone.
The middle then takes the soundwaves channeled by the outer ear and amplifies the sound as it progresses to the inner ear. The middle ear is an air-filled cavity containing three of the smallest bones in the body called the malleus, incus, and stapes also known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. These bones pick up on vibrations from the incoming soundwaves and pass them from the ear drum to the inner ear.
The inner ear is then in charge of converting these soundwaves to electric signals also known as nerve impulses. This process allows the brain to comprehend what the sounds mean. Unlike the middle ear which is filled with empty space, the inner ear is filled with fluid. It also contains thousands of sensory hairs called cilia in the cochlea which react to vibrations in the fluid sending signals to the auditory nerve for the brain to process.
Central Hearing System
The central hearing system involves the auditory nerve navigating sounds along a complex path which includes the brain stem and eventually the auditory cortex in the brain.
How does hearing loss occur?
Effective hearing relies on all systems of the ear functioning normally for the soundwaves to reach the brain in a comprehensible manner. The nature of different types of hearing loss depend on which part of the ear is being affected.
For example, issues with sound volume typically indicate a problem in the outer or middle ear where soundwaves are not being adequately amplified. This is known as conductive hearing loss.
Problems with the inner ear are often caused by damage to the cilia in the cochlea or to the auditory nerve. This is referred to as sensorineural hearing loss.
General Practices to Help Prevent Hearing Loss
While not all types of hearing loss are avoidable, there are some tips and suggestions available that can help prevent ear damage.
Some recommended practices are:
- Avoid noisy environments when possible
- Purchase appliances and devices with low dBA (decibel) sound levels
- Move away from loud outdoor sounds you may encounter to minimize exposure
- If you are not able to avoid noisy environments, wear effective ear protection like earplugs or earmuffs
- If you are having difficulty hearing the TV or the radio – don’t continually turn up the volume as a solution – get assessed by a hearing professional
- Get regular hearing check ups to monitor hearing ability and catch problems early